By the middle of this century, Gov. Jerry Brown wants California to pull more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere every year than it puts in.
That vision will almost certainly cost Californians. No one can say how much, however, because no one quite knows how we’ll achieve it.
California has years of experience ramping up its use of renewable power, plugging ever more solar plants and wind turbines into the grid.
But eliminating the state’s greenhouse gas emissions altogether by 2045 – the goal of an executive order Brown signed last week – will require decarbonizing sectors of the economy that California’s climate regulations have not yet addressed, such as agriculture. It will require better, cheaper ways to store power, electrifying all cars on California roads and forcing airlines to switch to renewable jet fuel.
Then comes the truly hard part.
The technology exists for removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the air. Even the most optimistic forecasts project that doing so will be expensive.
And at least for now, there’s no business model for it. When utility companies buy electricity from a wind farm, it replaces electricity they would have otherwise bought from conventional power plants. Paying someone to suck carbon from the atmosphere, in contrast, would be an additive expense.
“Relative to what we’re doing today, somebody’s going to have to pay the bill,” said James Mulligan, who has written about carbon removal strategies for the World Resources Institute think tank. “Whether it’s the taxpayer, the (utility) ratepayer, or the shareholder or what have you – it’s got to come out of somebody’s pocket.”
Brown established the carbon-negative goal on the eve of last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, which gathered government officials from around the world. He acknowledged during the event that the path would not necessarily be easy.
“That’s the most ambitious goal of anywhere in the world,” Brown said. “It doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”
How much will it cost? The California Air Resources Board, which runs most of the state’s climate goals, does not yet have a cost estimate for reaching carbon neutrality, said spokesman Stanley Young. Or for going negative.
Even the relatively straightforward task of getting all of the state’s electricity from carbon-free sources —a 2045 goal established in a bill that Brown signed into law last week – has an unknown price tag. Neither Pacific Gas and Electric Co. nor Southern California Edison, the state’s two largest electric utilities, have estimates.
PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo noted that it’s not just a matter of buying more renewable power. The company will need more large-scale energy storage, as well as upgrades to its electricity transmission and distribution systems to move energy from new renewable facilities.
“You can put us in the camp of, ‘We don’t know,’” Paulo said.
And yet, while reaching carbon neutrality and beyond poses costs, so does runaway climate change – although California, of course, can hardly solve a global problem alone.
“We do know the cost of not doing anything is going to be really expensive and potentially disastrous for our economy over time,” said Laura Wisland, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So we can’t do nothing.”
Companies such as Tesla are already plugging large batteries into the state’s grid, working with PG&E and the other utilities. And costs are falling. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that the levelized cost of energy from utility-size batteries – a measure that includes the costs of installing and maintaining a facility over time – has plunged almost 80 percent since 2010 and will drop an additional 66 percent by 2030.
Tumbling prices for lithium-ion batteries should make electric cars more affordable. Whether all car buyers will find them desirable is a different matter.
Transportation remains the state’s single largest source of greenhouse gases, and emissions from the sector have risen in recent years even as the state’s overall emissions have fallen. Although sales of electric cars are rising, they still account for just 3.3 percent of new car registrations in the state, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.
The state’s agriculture industry produces about one-fifth as many greenhouse gas emissions as the transportation sector, but it’s still significant – emitting more than 33 million metric tons per year. But farms aren’t included in California’s cap-and-trade system for cutting emissions in other parts of the economy. And it’s unclear how to capture emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – from flatulent cows.
Then there’s the question of actually removing CO2 or other greenhouse gases once they’ve entered the atmosphere.
Expanding forests can do that, as can protecting existing ones from fires and other threats. But the population of California and the world is still growing, requiring more land to grow food, so opportunities to significantly increase forested land may be limited. In agriculture, planting cover crops at times of the year when the land would otherwise lie fallow can sequester some carbon, as well as improve the fertility of the soil. But again, it may not be a large-scale solution.
There are technologies that can strip greenhouse gases from the exhaust of power plants and store them underground, a process known as carbon capture and storage. For power plants burning natural gas, like most conventional plants in California, the cost is estimated to be more expensive than adding solar or wind power.
A variant of the same technology can capture carbon dioxide directly from the air, rather than a smokestack. A handful of companies have even built demonstration plants for the process, known as direct air capture. The Canadian company Carbon Engineering opened such a plant in Squamish, British Columbia, in 2015.
There is, however, significant debate about the cost. A peer-reviewed paper released this year by Carbon Engineering’s founder argued that the process could eventually cost less than $100 for every ton of carbon captured. A previous estimate put the cost at more than $1,000 per ton. (California’s cap-and-trade system currently values a metric ton of greenhouse gases at $14.53.)
Carbon Engineering uses CO2 to make a product that can offset some of the cost – carbon-neutral fuels. They are made with CO2 extracted from the atmosphere, and they release that carbon back into the atmosphere when burned. Unlike fossil fuels, they don’t add to the problem, but neither do they solve it.
Another Canadian company, CarbonCure Technologies, has one solution. It has developed a process that injects carbon dioxide into concrete, making the building material stronger while keeping the gas out of the atmosphere. And the process does not require concrete and cement makers to revamp their facilities. CarbonCure can add its technology to existing plants. In the Bay Area, Central Concrete Supply Co. has an agreement to use the technology in its plants.
“We represent a new industry of profit-driven, clean-tech companies making use of CO2,” said CarbonCure CEO Robert Niven. “But we also represent existing industries that will need to adapt to this low-carbon future.”
Even if new industries arise to make use of excess greenhouse gases, Mulligan said carbon capture will probably require public funding and certainly needs public investment to perfect the technology and drive down the cost. He considers that investment worth it.
“This is really about creating options for society,” he said. “If we reach a point where climate impacts have just become intolerable, and we realize that we need to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in, this is something we know how to do, and it’s as cheap as possible so it doesn’t bankrupt us in the process.”
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