BHP's strange investment in Carbon Engineering

BHP's strange investment in Carbon Engineering

Mining giant BHP has invested $6 million in Carbon Engineering, a company that has developed technology for direct CO2 capture from the atmosphere.

The size of the investment would indicate that there is something to this direct-from-the-air CO2 capture technology. However, from my outside position it strikes me as a strange thing to invest in.

Any separation technology must receive an input of energy from outside the system - the 2nd law of thermodynamics means you can’t get around that.

So any CO2 capture system requires energy from outside the plant. Their website says they use renewable electricity, but if they start selling this technology then other electricity sources could be used.

What puzzles me is this: capturing CO2 from the air (concentration ~400ppm) vs from flue gas (over 100,000 ppm). Energy requirements go up the more times you need to concentrate something. So going to (say) 90% CO2 purity, you’re looking at ~2250 times for atmospheric capture vs ~9 times for flue gas capture. That’s going to require a lot of extra energy.

This difference should make direct air capture a much more expensive option than flue gas capture.

It’s not like we have a shortage of flue gas CO2 sources right now. I’m interested to know why you’d spend so much more on energy to do CO2 capture like this vs a more conventional flue gas capture plant. The economics of this process will be very interesting.

An article by Carbon Engineering’s patent author David Keith estimates a levelised cost of CO2 capture for this technology at USD 94-232 per tonne of CO2 captured.

This is a very high capture cost compared to so many available alternatives for carbon dioxide abatement. Energy efficiency projects, by comparison, often yield very low or negative (i.e. they pay you) costs for abatement. Fuel switching is often much cheaper, as are renewable energy projects.

At this point I’m left wondering about BHP’s motivations for this investment. Carbon Engineering won’t be selling many of these plants in the absence of a very very high carbon price - something that’s unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.

A few skeptical commenters on my LinkedIn post on this topic believe this investment is straight-up greenwashing - a way for BHP to give the appearance of dealing with their GHG emissions with a tiny investment. For context, this AUD 6 million (USD 4.2 million) investment is a tiny fraction of the USD 2.02 billion net profit it made last year.

Time will tell. Maybe Carbon Engineering have some plans to drop this technology’s operating costs. I’d love to hear from you if you know more about this.

Technology is no sustainability panacea

Technology will enhance our efforts towards a sustainable economy, but it’s no panacea.

Tech is a powerful servant but a poor master. As a community we need to make considered and careful decisions about the kind of industries, buildings, energy systems and transport networks truly meet our needs.

Only then will technology be the enabler we know it can be. IoT. AI. More advanced controls. Ever more efficient renewables. They are not worth much if we can’t decide how to put them to the best use to meet the needs of today’s community and the next generation.

If you’re starting your conversation with technology, start again.

Internet of Things energy metering

Internet of Things energy metering

Energy is so much more expensive these days. You need to know more than how much you’re buying to use it wisely.

If you wanted to fix your household budget, would you just want to know your income? Or would it be useful to know what and how much you’re spending on various items?

Your electricity or gas bill data is like “income” in a household budget - it tells you what’s coming in but not what you’re spending it on.

To really start getting useful energy analytics in your business, you need to dig much deeper.

Install well-chosen sub-meters around your facility so you know more accurately where your energy goes. Collect at high frequency - data storage is cheap these days. Collect power data to get control of your network charges.

Sub-metering costs are coming down rapidly. Internet-of-things (IoT) meters allow you to rapidly roll out extensive sub-metering within your plant without the high costs of cabling.

I’m hearing of cases of IoT metering investments paying off in a few days, thanks to sub-metering enabling faulty equipment to be identified and repaired.

Check out your IoT metering options today. Make an investment with a rapid and ongoing payoff.

Remember the soldiers in the climate war

Remember the soldiers in the climate war

In our response to climate change, the process is just as important as the goal.

Big international political meetings and corporate announcements tend to dominate news about our response to climate change.

These are important of course; they set the direction and resources made available to reduce emissions, destroy methane fugitives and sequester atmospheric CO2.

But sometimes the focus on these goals ignores the ongoing, day-to-day process of implementing projects. Optimising existing operations. The boring but important work of updating international and national standards. The never-ending cycle of reporting, audit and response. The slow but critical work of science and engineering research.

The war against climate change will be won in control rooms, in operations meetings, and by procurement teams. It will be won on standards committees and by teams drafting government regulations. It will be won in laboratories where years of work are distilled into another key innovation. It will be won in design reviews where new industrial plants are conceived before a single sod of soil is turned. It will be won by product designers.

Don’t lose sight of the global army of climate soldiers just because the generals get all the press.

Greenhouse gas figures are fuzzy numbers

Greenhouse gas figures are fuzzy numbers

When you see greenhouse gas (GHG) figures reported in sustainability reports or in the media, remember that they are fuzzy numbers.

As physical measurements, there is uncertainty. For some emissions sources, it’s not uncommon for the estimates to have uncertainties of ±50% (for a 95% confidence interval). Overall uncertainties for a full report are often over 10%.

And this doesn’t even get into the potential biases (always reading high or low) that most reporting systems gloss over.

This has a few important implications:

  • Trends are more important than absolute numbers. If the reported emissions figure is heading down, you can expect that real emissions are going down.

  • You shouldn’t get caught up in the decimal points in any emissions report - they’re statistically meaningless.

  • If you pay for your emissions (e.g. under the Safeguard Mechanism or an ETS) then there is a strong incentive to reduce uncertainty through more accurate measurement techniques. These can save you a lot of money.

  • It is not possible to carry out a true substantive audit on emissions figures. They aren’t like financial transactions where there is ultimately an invoice with a precise value attached. Audits focus on compliance with reporting rules and on materiality, not on accuracy.