World’s Largest Direct Air Carbon Capture System Goes Online

The largest carbon capture facility in the world is slated to come online Wednesday in Iceland, amid growing skepticism over the technology’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

The Orca, a direct air capture plant constructed by Swiss carbon capture company Climeworks AG, with support from Microsoft, started running Wednesday around 20 miles southeast of Reykjavík.

The facility, made up of eight air collection containers, each holding several dozen cylindrical fans, which pull in ambient air and filter carbon dioxide from it using a filter, according to the Climeworks’ press materials. What’s trapped is heated, mixed with water, and pumped deep underground. The plant would pull 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year in total, which the company anticipates would be stored for “thousands of years.”

Their process is proprietary, but it’s part of a broader form of carbon capture called direct air capture (DAC), a method of geoengineering that’s become controversial in recent years for its dubious efficacy and practicality. DAC proposes to slow climate change by sucking greenhouse gasses like CO2 directly from the atmosphere, DAC has splintered environmentalists, some of whom laud it as a potential savior, while others call it as a costly, risky distraction from meaningful emissions distractions.

DAC is relatively young, and builds on slightly more mature point-source carbon capture technologies, like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide directly at the source, as it’s emitted from power plants, which critics say does little more than justify extending the life of dying fossil fuel facilities. The carbon that’s removed from these plants is frequently drilled into old oil wells to simulate further production—and the technology fails more often than not. (A recent study of 263 CCS plants undertaken between 1995 and 2018 found that most of them flopped or failed.)

DAC projects like Orca have been called into question for the same reason. Ryan Hanna, a scientist at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Energy Research, told E&E News on Tuesday that he isn’t sure if DAC “is going to be the most cost-effective way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in the long run.” 

“What we really need in the short run is just knowledge,” Hanna said. “We have this massive technology option, but it’s behind a curtain.”

Carbon capture facilities also require electricity to run, and have, on the whole, been found to contribute more to atmospheric CO2 levels than they remove. In a 2020 literature review that found as much, researcher June Sekera notes that the only carbon capture method that could meaningfully reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases is direct air capture powered by renewable energy sources, like solar panels or wind turbines.

Orca falls into this category, technically: It’s powered by energy from a nearby geothermal power plant, which pulls heat from stores deep underground (crucially, this energy source is renewable, but not emission-free). But despite its size, the Climeworks project is only capable of removing less than 1 percent of the annual emissions of a single coal-fired power plant, according to E&E News. That’s the same amount of greenhouse gas emitted by around 870 cars each year, Quartz reported Tuesday (a minuscule fraction of the estimated 1 to 2 billion cars on the road worldwide today.) 

Even so, the Orca’s power represents approximately 40 percent of existing DAC capacity worldwide—a figure indicative of the technology’s relative youth. As of 2020, only 15 DAC facilities existed worldwide, capturing 9,000 tons of CO2 per year. Carbon removal technologies will need to scale up exponentially, and extremely quickly, to remove the 100 to 1000 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is necessary by 2100 to minimize catastrophic climate change. 

Global leaders, including the Biden administration—and corporate entities—including Occidental Petroleum, Exxon, and Chevron—are striving to make this happen, as they continue to throw their support behind DAC as a climate solution. 

Investors believe DAC will grow more affordable as the market for it expands. But critics say it’s a gamble, nonetheless. Academics and progressive environmentalists remain dubious that carbon removal is little more than a distraction, and give fossil fuel companies an excuse to keep emitting while distracting policymakers from meaningfully reducing emissions at their source. 

Orca will soon be joined by another mammoth project in Texas backed by Shopify, slated to go up in 2024, and Climeworks’ own sister project in Norway, announced in March. As these deals were being finalized,  hundreds of environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada were drafting an open letter urging federal legislators in both countries to reject the technology. 

“Carbon capture schemes are unnecessary, ineffective, exceptionally risky, and at

odds with a just energy transition and the principles of environmental justice,” the letter reads. “National strategies should focus on eliminating the use of fossil fuels and other combustible sources in our energy system, not simply reducing their emissions intensity.” 

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