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Roadmap for carbon capture and storage in California

A new study outlines how capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide from power plants, oil refineries and other facilities could help California meet its climate goals.

“We know how to make wells that don’t leak and to seal them up when we want to. For projects that are designed well and operated well, the risk should be quite low," said Lynn Orr. (Photo credit: Marcin Jozwiak / Unsplash)

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide can significantly help California meet its aggressive goals to combat climate change, according to a joint study that lays out a roadmap for the state and an example for other governments.

California aims to become carbon neutral by 2045. The new study by the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage, Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and the Energy Futures Initiative provides an action plan for policy makers detailing opportunities, challenges and solutions for carbon capture and storage in California. This technology offers a path to rapidly reduce emissions from economically vital sectors in California, such as industry, which has few other near- and mid-term options to decarbonize. Meeting California’s 2030 goal of 60 percent renewable generation and a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is enabled by adding CCS to some natural gas combined cycle plants, which would reduce emissions and increase reliability. CCS also provides employment opportunities for the existing energy workforce in new energy jobs that take advantage of their skills in refinery operations, and in oil and gas production. New industries and jobs in the hydrogen economy, COremoval and COutilization are also enabled by CCS technologies.

“We need every option we can generate for low carbon, and that means a very, very broad portfolio of technologies. That also means we’re going to need negative carbon technologies,” Ernest Moniz, president of the Energy Futures Initiative and former U.S. energy secretary, said in an online rollout of the new report on October 22.

California already experiences climate change today and is plagued by record high temperatures that continue to grow, droughts that severely impact the state’s water resources, and wildfires exacerbated each year by this hot and dry weather. Successful policy is vital to ensure California transitions to a carbon neutral economy in an economical and equitable way, the report finds. Key to the success of the scale-up of CCS is to focus on its social equity and community benefits.

Technological challenges

“CCS is a relatively new technology,” said Sally Benson, Stanford professor of energy resources engineering and the co-leader of the study with Melanie Kenderdine, a managing principal at Energy Futures Initiative.

“California is certainly a climate leader today. There’s so much that needs to be done around the world, and California can expand its leadership by helping CCS get off the ground,” Benson added at the rollout event.

CCS involves the capture of CO2, usually from emission sources like power plants, oil refining facilities and cement manufacturing plants, and then storing that carbon in a permanent geologic formation such as a deep saline reservoir. 

“CCS in California, while not the silver bullet, could be a major contributor to reaching the state’s emissions reduction targets,” said Kenderdine.

California’s geology is well suited for safe and permanent storage of CO2.

Carbon capture and storage plant in Kemper, Mississippi
In 2013, then U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and international energy officials toured Kemper–the nation's largest carbon capture and storage facility–in Liberty, Mississippi. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

“If we were to store 60 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, as identified in this study, you could do that for more than 1000 years,” said Benson, who is a faculty director of the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage. “California has very abundant and very high-quality storage resources.”

Nevertheless, the potential for leaking CO2 back into the atmosphere must be managed.

“Storage sites with layers of rock above the storage zone that prevent CO2 from returning to the surface along with well-engineered facilities that include proven injection well designs will store the CO2 indefinitely,” said Lynn Orr, Stanford professor emeritus and co-chair with Moniz on the project’s advisory board. “We know how to make wells that don’t leak and to seal them up when we want to. For projects that are designed well and operated well, the risk should be quite low.”

Today, over 260 million tons of CO2 have been stored safely and securely from 21 projects worldwide.

Roadmap for policy makers

The study provides the California state government with immediate actionable options to deploy CCS, especially in emission-intensive facilities for the production of transportation fuels, electricity, and cement. CCS provides a viable option for those industries to decarbonize, the study finds. Technoeconomic analysis indicates that with current policy incentives, 20 Mt/year could be captured and stored profitably. Additional policy measures will be needed to make the remaining 40 Mt/yr of capturable CO2 economically attractive.

CCS paired with power plants fueled by natural gas, for example, creates a clean firm resource for producing electricity. Such resources are critical for California, as it continues to build out its renewable energy infrastructure, to overcome grid reliability issues associated with renewable intermittency and the high cost associated with battery storage of renewable power.

If CCS is available, renewable resources like solar and wind are deployed more efficiently and less battery storage is required for grid reliability, said Kenderdine. The system could operate with 27 percent less battery capacity and 16 percent less solar capacity, she said.

“The cost savings of those differences are $750 million a year,” said Kenderdine. When you add CCS to a natural gas combined cycle plant, the system can operate much more efficiently, she explained.

Jane Long, senior contributing scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, supported the study's conclusions backing CCS. "The need for clean firm power is pretty overwhelming," she said during a panel discussion on the report following the researchers’ presentation. Trying to keep the grid stable just with renewable power and batteries "is going to cost significantly more [than] to do it without clean firm power, and it probably won't work."

The study finds California has 76 existing electricity and industrial facilities that are suitable candidates for CCS retrofit. The emissions from these 76 facilities are close to 15 percent of total California greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, and are equal to the state’s 2017 power sector emissions.

“CCS is also great leverage for job creation which we definitely need right now,” Moniz said.

California has hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil and gas sector. CCS could provide jobs for people, with these oil and gas industry related skill sets, which might otherwise become obsolete.

Even though there are 21 operational projects worldwide, the perception is that this is still relatively untested, and people are not clear whether CCS works. A varying level of public understanding and support of CCS has an impact on developer and investor interest, the researchers said. Additionally, planning and permitting requirements are new and unique as projects cross multiple regulatory jurisdictions. In spite of five CCS projects in varying stages of early planning and development as of Sept. 2020, California has no operational projects. 

The report argues that these challenges can be overcome through policy actions. In the near-term, the report recommends affirming state support of CCS to meet emissions targets, improving and coordinating permitting processes, issuing policy guidance to clarify CCS eligibility under existing policy, addressing the lack of legal clarity on geologic pore space ownership, and developing a large state-sponsored CCS demonstration project to address untested concerns. 

If we were to store 60 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, as identified in this study, you could do that for more than 1000 years...California has very abundant and very high-quality storage resources.

Sally Benson Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, Faculty Director, Stanford Center for Carbon Storage

The report also recommends that California pursue key enablers for CCS. These actions include incorporating CCS protocol into the cap-and-trade program, improving support mechanisms such as funding support for feasibility studies, and setting statewide carbon removal targets. The study also recommend creating a new entity that oversees COtransport, storage, and administrative operations.

Potential implementation

The report may well inform California policies, laws and regulations. State labor organizations and energy companies were represented on the project’s board of advisors and among its sponsors.

“In this administration, we are really focused on looking across the board at a very integrated approach of how to get to our climate goals,” said Kate Gordon, director of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Planning & Research, during the panel discussion.

“This is not just a technology question. It’s a land use question. It’s an economic development question. It’s an environmental question. It’s a jobs and equity question,” said Gordon. “The governor has been really clear that when we have a clear policy direction that aligns with our climate and equity values he wants us to have a business relationship that, as he said, is red carpet not red tape.”.

Deepika Nagabhushan of the Clean Air Task Force, Keith L. Pronske of Clean Energy Systems and Trude Sundset of Gassnova also participated in the panel discussion during the report rollout webinar.

Sponsors of the report include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Linden Trust for Conservation, Case Foundation, Stephenson Foundation, Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, Calpine Corporation, United Mine Workers of America, California State Association of Electrical Workers, State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Media Contacts

Mark Golden
Precourt Institute for Energy

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