Opinion: How B.C. can become the Silicon Valley for carbon capture and reliable clean energy

By making natural gas, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and renewable energy work together, B.C. has an opportunity to accelerate the shift to net-zero emissions.

Credit: Carbon Engineering via Twitter

With a British partner, Squamish-based Carbon Engineering recently began preliminary work on the U.K.’s first large-scale facility to capture carbon from the atmosphere

By making natural gas and renewables work in tandem, the province has an opportunity to accelerate the shift to net-zero emissions

Over the past few decades, B.C. has built a well-deserved reputation throughout North America and beyond as a clean energy/cleantech powerhouse and hub. Now it’s well positioned to add carbon capture and storage (CCS) to that broader mix of accomplishments.

Notable B.C.-based carbon capture companies include Svante and Carbon Engineering, both of which made the latest Global Cleantech 100 list. The province also leads with significant capabilities in hydrogen for transportation, given players like industry pioneer Ballard Power Systems and startup Hydra Energy, whose technology lets diesel engines accommodate some hydrogen.

In addition, B.C. produced 27 percent of Canada’s natural gas output in 2019, while the country represents 4 percent of global natural gas production. 

The federal carbon tax, the newly announced investment tax credit for CCS, and the Canadian low-carbon fuel standard provide a strong signal to adopt CCS. Doing so will enable dependable production of electricity and hydrogen, with B.C.-produced natural gas as the energy source in some cases.

North America must greatly increase its production and use of low-carbon electricity and hydrogen enabled by CCS. Powering this effort with natural gas sourced from B.C. and other parts of Canada makes sense because it’s among the world’s cleanest such fuel, partly thanks to high methane venting standards.

A key role for natural gas

The urgent need to rapidly reduce emissions requires a wholesale rejection of the extremist mentality that all hydrocarbons are inherently bad and should be eliminated as soon as possible.

We must evolve our thinking to focus on carbon dioxide emissions as a bulk quantity problem, rather than take a simplistic view based on phasing out hydrocarbons, in particular natural gas. The reason is simple: CO2 is like any other commodity product, so we need to concentrate on the lowest-cost emission avoidance options(measured in dollars per tonne of avoided emissions) first and move toward higher-cost options over time. For example, CO2 capture costs for ethanol and hydrogen production are a fraction of the costs of direct air capture.   

If we focus exclusively on renewables and cut off the supply of hydrocarbons through policy and investment choices while investing in high-cost, novel carbon removal solutions, consumers will probably revolt, and politics will turn 180 degrees against climate-oriented policies.    

The energy grid can’t run on renewables alone. Period. In the near term, the only way to achieve clean and firm (dispatchable, available on demand) power and reliable energy is by harnessing natural gas and renewables together to move toward emissions goals.

“Unlike a natural gas plant, solar plant operators can’t easily throttle electricity up and down as needed, or space generation out through the day, night and dark winter,” notes a recent article in the MIT Technology Review. “It’s available when it’s available, which is when the sun is shining. And that’s when all the other solar plants are cranking out electricity at maximum levels as well.”

As Jeff Brown, director of energy economics at the University of Wyoming, points out in The Role of Natural Gas in Decarbonizing the U.S. Energy and Industrial Economy, “this middle path for natural gas is but one component of a multi-technology strategy that supports penetration of all zero-emitting and low-emitting energy technologies on the way to a zero-emissions future.”

Today, decarbonized natural gas power plants with carbon capture “can back up wind, solar photovoltaic (PV) and other intermittent zero-carbon electricity producers, especially to meet day-to-night and seasonal production and consumption mismatches,” Brown adds. “Thus, such decarbonized natural gas power plants can permit a swifter and deeper penetration of renewables into the power grid without loss of system reliability.”

The California Public Utilities Commission recently echoed those sentiments, stating that “outages and reliability problems can seriously erode public confidence in our environmental goals for the electric sector.”

Ensuring that the energy system remains affordable and reliable while we reduce emissions is the only sustainable pathway to ensure consumer and political support for climate action.

No time to waste

Despite our best intentions, global demand for hydrocarbons is growing and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. We need to deal with energy by reflecting reality—a worldwide population of 7.7 billion with an exponentially expanding energy appetite. CCS is simply a critical solution in the portfolio.

For B.C. in particular, the adoption of CCS throughout Canada and globally, along with the subsequent launch of related industries and commerce, will greatly benefit homegrown companies like Carbon Engineering and Svante. At the same time, B.C.-based hydrogen businesses will benefit from increased use of their fuel of choice, made possible by the cost-effective and reliable production enabled by CCS. If B.C.-sourced natural gas supplies the underlying energy, a trifecta of benefits will accrue.   

Crucial to meeting our emissions goals is global adoption of CCS-enabled power and hydrogen, with B.C.-supplied LNG rather than energy from unabated coal in Asia. Finally, growing markets for ammonia and methanol, produced with CCS in Western Canada, can further reduce use of coal by Asian customers.

Environmental and activist groups that vehemently oppose CCS have unrealistic and fantastical views about the reality of the energy transition to a lower-emissions system. Outright elimination of hydrocarbons is not cost-effective or technically possible today. It’s time for those on all sides of the debate, even polar opposites, to be realistic and pragmatic. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and time is not on our side.

We can’t delay as we work an initial timeline and seek to hit aggressive net-zero targets within 9.5 years, which will pass before we know it. The moment to act is now. We need to meet in the middle, with hydrocarbons, CCS and renewables working in tandem, to make this goal a reality today and not just a pipe dream for tomorrow.

Craig Golinowski is president and managing partner at Carbon Infrastructure Partners, a Calgary-based alternative investment firm that invests in and champions unlocking capital across the entire carbon life cycle.