“The latest UN climate report has made it clear that removing legacy carbon pollution from the air through direct air capture and safe storage is a critical weapon in our fight. against the climate crisis,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. Granholm said funding the Infrastructure Act “will not only make our zero-carbon future a reality, but help position the United States as a net zero leader.”
Department officials say the advisory, which was first shared with CNN, is a crucial step in building this industry in the United States.
“For us to get to millions of tons [removed from the air] per year through these demonstrations will be critical,” said Jen Wilcox, principal deputy assistant secretary in the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.
President Joe Biden is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions in the United States by 2050, but experts say that’s not achievable by simply switching from fossil fuels to renewables – the country must also actively phase out the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to the amount it has already emitted.
Direct air removal “is a suite of technologies and strategies to achieve that multi-gigaton scale of carbon removal that we need to achieve in about 25 to 30 years,” said company partner John Larsen. nonpartisan Rhodium Group.
The United States needs to decarbonize and dramatically increase direct air removal, Larson said, to the point where these machines can remove not millions but billions of tons of CO2 per year. A billion tons of CO2 eliminated in one year would be equivalent to taking more than 215 million vehicles off the road.
Climeworks’ direct air removal project in Iceland is the largest, according to the company, removing about 10 metric tons of CO2 every day, or about the same amount of carbon that 500 trees could remove in a year.
The American hubs envisaged by the DOE will be much larger. Humans have yet to build a megaton-sized direct air removal system, Larson said, and the DOE hubs are an important first step to both greatly expand those projects and discover what works and what doesn’t.
“What you’re really building is a whole carbon removal industry,” Larsen said. “The odds of reaching gigatonne scale go down dramatically if we don’t start this decade. It’s much, much harder.”
A quick timeline
Momentum quickly develops for the direct elimination of air. Prior to 2018, the amount of money allocated to these projects in the United States was miniscule – around $11 million per year. The $3.5 billion that Congress recently passed for carbon removal, as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, represents a significant increase in funding.
“There’s a heavy emphasis on removing carbon as a critical tool that needs to scale today,” Wilcox said. “We’re definitely going to see the needle move in this space over the next 5-10 years.”
The DOE said it wants to see applications from different regions of the United States that can demonstrate high potential for carbon sequestration, can be further expanded and create sustainable jobs. It is also looking for applications from fossil fuel communities or communities with industrial capacity.
DOE officials are also aiming to make hubs themselves carbon neutral. For example, the Icelandic project runs on clean geothermal energy.
“It’s really important to think about where you’re going to integrate it with other decarbonization efforts,” said Erin Burns, executive director of Carbon180, an organization focused on carbon removal. “We want to see them powered by carbon-free energy, by renewables. It’s critical for the climate that this doesn’t slow down or delay mitigation in any way.”