Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy
Earlier this week, the Swiss company Climeworks fired up its new Orca direct air capture facility in Iceland, which will remove 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year and turn it into stone.
Obviously, 4,000 metric tons is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to today’s emissions. Each year, Orca will clean up about three seconds’ worth of global CO2 emissions at today’s rates.
But that’s not the point. Orca is a baby step toward a larger carbon removal industry that could one day clean up emissions from the hardest-to-abate sectors or, even better, start cleaning up “legacy carbon” that remains in the atmosphere from our past emissions. Without baby steps like Orca, though, we would never get there. In that respect, Orca is a bit like the tiny, 3.5 kilowatt solar power station that NASA’s Lewis Research Center installed on the Papago Indian Reservation in 1978; it’s only the beginning. Global solar power capacity now stands at more than 200 million times the capacity of that little installation. While direct air capture isn’t likely to grow at such a pace, the point is that we shouldn’t judge the potential of an industry by its output in its earliest days.
One reason that direct air capture won’t grow at the same pace as solar power is because solar panels provide energy, whereas direct air capture consumes it. So, at least for the next couple of decades, it will almost always make more sense, from the perspective of climate change mitigation and energy justice, to spend money on installing more clean energy and replacing old fossil fuel infrastructure than on building more direct air capture facilities. The reason to spend some money on direct air capture now, though, is to help the technology grow so that once we’ve drastically reduced our emissions, we can use direct air capture and other approaches to carbon removal to get to net-zero and maybe even net-negative emissions. By analogy, four decades ago, the reason to spend money on solar panels was not because they offered a cost-effective way of reducing emissions or supplying energy, but because those investments helped the technology grow. If everyone had dismissed solar at the time as too small and too expensive, we wouldn’t have the solar industry that we do today.
At any rate, one of the compelling things about Orca is that it’s running on renewable geothermal energy that was basically stranded in Iceland. Because Iceland already runs almost entirely on renewables, the clean energy that Orca uses couldn’t easily have been used to displace dirty energy instead. (Arguably, one could have instead built a facility to produce green hydrogen to ship to Europe or North America, but again, the point of Orca isn’t to reduce emissions today but to help build a technology that will be useful in the future. Besides, there’s plenty of renewable energy to go around in Iceland, so why not both? Build a hydrogen plant there, too!)
Another compelling thing about Orca is that it sits atop the perfect geology for mineralizing CO2. Orca can inject its captured CO2 directly into basalt, where it will turn to stone in a matter of years.
The combination of abundant, stranded clean energy and good geology for sequestration makes Iceland an ideal place to build early direct air capture facilities—which raises an interesting question: where else in the world can we find that combination?