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Utilities and Decarbonizing

The “utility of the future” can ultimately ensure net zero emissions not only for themselves but also for others who cannot otherwise adequately reduce their carbon emissions.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Chistophe Jospe today, September 10, will address the topic, "Air Capture's Role in Decarbonizing Global Energy Systems" at a United States Energy Association briefing in Washington. The Energy Times invited him to provide an executive summary of his presentation to our readers, given the importance of the theme to the emerging utility of the future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that mitigating the most severe effects of climate change requires staying below 450 parts per million. Under business as usual scenarios, this threshold could be surpassed in under twenty years. Because carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, stabilizing the concentration requires the nearly complete elimination of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This poses a tremendous challenge for today’s energy engineers: Provide affordable energy for a rapidly growing world economy while eliminating all CO2 emissions.

Christophe Jospe


This must also be accomplished without other environmental impacts, without adding creating energy shortages, and in the most economical way possible. This would include bold negative-emissions technologies for recovering and storing atmospheric CO2 to cancel out residual emissions and, if necessary, actually reduce the total CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Air capture, or the technological removal of CO2 from air, presents a promising option to dramatically lower the carbon footprint by economically removing CO2 from the air to become a feedstock for CO2 recycling or disposal. Moreover, because air capture connects the problem to solution, is unambiguous in its metric, and more research and development can build upon an established technology base that can theoretically scale limitlessly, it has been considered a technological fix to climate change.

Perhaps the strongest long-term role for developing air capture is not that it will cancel out all CO2 emissions, but that it will set the upper limits of carbon remediation when no cheaper option can be pursued to achieve net-zero emissions. For utility companies, the ability to remove CO2 from the air presents a unique opportunity: removing and disposing of CO2 can become a public good that fits the utility model to do something on behalf of others.

Utilities should consider the promise of negative carbon emissions and explore  pursuing rapid development of air capture technologies, identify the potential relationships between air capture and other carbon management technologies - including: conventional carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, energy storage and liquid fuels. They should get a technological overview of the state of different air capture technology approaches,  near and long term air capture markets, and envision how the status quo may change with the economic removal of CO2 from air.

A future panel on this topic will occur in New York City during Climate Week NYC on September 22 at the National Grid Headquarters.

Christophe Jospe is chief strategist at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University.


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