By Margaret McCormick, PhD, Algae Biomass Organization Board Chair
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is getting increased attention these days, but one potential oversight in the public discussion and in policy circles could hinder progress for the algae industry as well as our ability to slow greenhouse gas emissions.
Fuels, feeds, chemicals and bioplastics derived from algae can play a unique role in a process called carbon capture and utilization (CCU). Rather than dispose of carbon dioxide underground, this approach would permit utilities and other industries to mitigate their emissions by recycling the carbon into renewable and marketable products.
Next month, the EPA will close the comment period on its draft proposal that sets guidelines for new power plants to bury their CO2 underground. Currently the draft does not permit utilities to recycle or reuse their emissions to meet their carbon reduction goals.
Regulators need to understand the opportunity they have to modify the proposal to better promote the use of algae and other utilization technologies:
First, underground storage alone will not reduce emissions as much as a combination of approaches that includes utilization. Some estimates have shown that annual production of 2.4 million barrels of gasoline with algal oil would consume 1.5 billion tons of CO2, or more than 40% of total U.S. annual emissions from stationary sources. Algae-derived fuels and bioproducts also displace petroleum-derived products, resulting in a net reduction of emissions.
Second, reusing carbon emissions will be much more cost-effective than CCS, since the wide range of algal products can introduce revenue streams that underground storage cannot.
Third, algae companies have shown that reuse is just as viable as underground storage. A few examples: Sapphire Energy‘s algae-based fuel has been shown to result in a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with fossil fuels. Algenol‘s process can utilize one tonne of CO2 to produce more than 140 gallons of algae-derived ethanol. BioProcess Algae is operating a production facility that grows algae with CO2 generated as a byproduct of ethanol production. Accelergy Corporation has developed carbon capture and recycling technology that utilizes CO2 emitted during coal-to-liquid fuel production to grow concentrated algae.
These are examples from companies for just the past year. The algae industry’s progress toward commercial operations is remarkable.
Importantly, the EPA’s proposed approach violates the well-established waste management hierarchy set forth in the Pollution Prevention Act, a national policy favoring the prevention or reduction of waste, followed by recycling, treatment, and disposal, in that order. Disposal is the least-favored option under the statute.
Further, the EPA’s proposal hinders innovation by mandating the use of geologic sequestration and categorically prohibiting reuse technologies. In essence, the EPA is picking a “technology winner” instead of leaving it to the market to decide.
The EPA should clarify their proposed rules so that beneficial reuse technologies that employ simple sunlight, algae, and CO2 to produce renewable fuel and other products may be used by utilities to meet CO2 emission limits.
As the conversation around carbon capture heats up please speak up, make these points known.
New policies and technologies will always be shaping our industry. It is important for all of us to be part of the conversation.
The above post was featured in Algae InSight, ABO’s monthly newsletter. Sign up for our monthly newsletters here to stay updated on the latest algae industry news.