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BECCS: Tech-Fueled Nature, Panacea or Pariah?

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The proliferation of national and corporate net-zero targets is focusing attention on ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This includes natural means, such as planting more trees and restoring ecosystems, plus high tech solutions such as direct air capture. Another option that brings together nature and technology, combining bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (CCS) and commonly known as BECCS, is also starting to gain traction (NE Jan.24'19). In theory, bioenergy can be classed as “carbon neutral” because forests and other plants absorb carbon as they grow. If biomass is burned in a power station and the emissions are captured and stored, the process can qualify as “carbon negative.” This opens the way for BECCS to be used as a backstop to reduce atmospheric CO2 if levels overshoot what’s needed to limit global temperature rises beyond 1.5°C in hope of averting the worst impacts of climate change. In practice, the carbon neutrality of burning biomass is widely questioned and critics are calling for it be curtailed not expanded. Research by London think tank Chatham House suggests the deployment of BECCS on the scale assumed in most models would consume a land area equivalent to half of what's currently taken up by global cropland, implying massive land-use change and concomitant risks for food security and biodiversity. Bigger, Better? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that BECCS could potentially contribute emissions cuts of up to 3.3 billion tons per year of CO2 by 2100. That's way more than the paltry BECCS capacity of around 1.5 million tons/yr of CO2 removal that exists today, consisting of five US projects associated with ethanol production that capture CO2 produced during fermentation, according to the Global CCS Institute. Other projects are starting to emerge. The world’s first BECCS project tied to power generation started up last October in Fukuoka prefecture in Japan where Toshiba is operating a 40 megawatt plant fueled by palm kernel shells that aims to capture around 180,000 tons/yr of CO2. The facility is part of the Sustainable CCS technology demonstration project sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. UK generator Drax is proposing a much bigger project at its 3.9 gigawatt power station in North Yorkshire, England, where it has converted coal burning units to burn wood pellets (NE Mar.5'20). If the planning application is approved and Drax secures the right investment framework from government, construction of the first two BECCS units -- capturing and storing up to 8 million tons/yr of CO2 -- could get under way in 2024. Drax is part of Zero Carbon Humber, a partnership of 12 businesses and organizations looking to establish a CCS and hydrogen economy in the Humber region (NE Nov.5'20). Across the North Sea, Orsted, Microsoft and Aker Carbon Capture recently signed a memorandum of understanding to explore ways of developing CCS at Orsted’s biomass-fired heat and power plants in Denmark, potentially using CO2 storage capacity at Norway's Northern Lights project, where Microsoft is also a partner (NE Mar.11'21). The tech giant is similarly involved in a recently announced BECCS project in the US with Chevron, Schlumberger New Energy and Clean Energy Systems in Mendota, California, targeting the removal of about 300,000 tons/yr of CO2 and based on agricultural waste (NE Mar.11'21). Social License Any wider, large-scale deployment of BECCS will likely require public policy interventions at several levels. There is a need for financing to derisk and/or co-finance investments in large-scale facilities and policies in place that reward negative emissions, notes the International Energy Agency. That hinges on gaining and retaining societal support for BECCS, which could be challenging, with opposition already mobilizing against such use of biomass. In February more than 500 scientists signed an open letter calling on world leaders to stop treating the burning of biomass as carbon neutral and to work “to preserve and restore forests and not to burn them.” Campaign groups in the UK are also calling on the government to withhold any public funds from the Drax project given the threat that large-scale biomass burning poses for the natural world. Ronan Kavanagh, London

Topics:
Upstream Technology, Carbon Capture (CCS), Low-Carbon Policy
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