“You can’t move to the final commercial stage without such a test,” said Brice Freeman, a product manager at Membrane Technology. “If not for this site, we would have had to turn to the private sector. So this really improves the commercialization and de-risking of the technology.”
For more than a decade the global consortium of scientists with the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has endorsed the necessity of carbon-capture technology to avoid the worst impacts of warming temperatures. These devices, while still unproven and inordinately expensive, might be used to remove the carbon emissions caused by burning fossil fuels, keeping greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. The carbon could then be stored underground or possibly sold for commercial purposes.
Carbon capture is generally viewed suspiciously by environmental groups who see it as a risky way to prolong the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. A recent report by Bloomberg News found that several major power operators in the U.S. with net-zero goals currently justify their plans to build new gas-fired plants by relying on adoption of carbon capture and storage technology that doesn’t yet exist at scale.
Despite these concerns, both Congress and federal energy officials have shown themselves supportive of carbon capture, which is politically popular in states whose economies rely on fossil fuel. There’s also a perceived need for carbon capture in key industrial sectors, such as steel and concrete, that will face severe difficulties curbing emissions by other means.
In a recent assessment on how to reach net zero emissions by midcentury, the International Energy Agency projected that worldwide carbon capture would need increase from just 40 million metric tons of CO₂ per year in 2020 to more than 1.6 billion metric tons by the end of this decade. Yet so far development of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology hasn’t yet led to affordable breakthroughs like those that have dramatically reduced costs for solar panels and wind turbines.
To encourage advancement, over the last five years the U.S. Department of Energy has given more than a half a billion dollars in grant money for carbon capture and storage. In addition, organized labor groups have recently thrown support by a policy proposal to build out pipelines for captured carbon that would rival all existing oil pipeline infrastructure in the U.S. The proposal is backed by President Obama’s former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and the AFL-CIO.
Yet even as these infrastructure plans and development grants move forward, there remains a basic lack of facilities to test the technologies that might make efficient carbon capture possible. Only two exist in the U.S. at the moment.
The National Carbon Capture Center in Alabama has been in operation since 2009 but can only test at a very small scale: up to 25 metric tons of carbon a day, or about the equivalent of the pollution released by burning 2,813 gallons of gasoline.
The Wyoming facility is newer, having opened in 2018, and can test capture technologies at closer to real-life usage. “We are 20 times larger than any of the other existing facilities in the U.S.,” said Jason Begger, managing director of the Integrated Test Center. “So we can take those projects that have kind of graduated out.”
That’s what happened to Membrane Technology before it won the federal grant in May. The company had already tested its technology on a limited basis at the National Carbon Capture Center. Now it needs a larger stage, and the only one available in the U.S. is in Wyoming. (There’s another large carbon capture testing center located in Mongstad, Norway.)
As nation’s top cop coal producer—about 40% of the U.S. supply comes from the state—Wyoming has developed a natural interest in promoting carbon capture and storage. The testing center itself is attached to Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant just outside of Gillette and received state money as well as financial support from private utilities looking for options to decarbonize.
Getting carbon capture to become a viable tool will take vast amounts of investments, said John Thompson, technology and markets director of the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit that lobbies for science-based decarbonization policies. But sites like the Wyoming ITC help. “Testing centers just make scarce research and investment dollars so much more efficient,” Thompson said.
It might seem that carbon capture could be tested on any industrial facility with an emissions problem, of which there are no shortage. But most businesses are reluctant to make a cut in their smoke stacks, which is what it takes to test carbon capture tools.
Begger has one reliable way to tell that the need for testing far outstrips the existing capacity. “Every time the DOE announces funding for a carbon capture project,” he said, “our phone just rings off the hook.”