Carbon capture and storage has taken on increasing importance as companies with stubborn emissions look for new ways to meet their net zero goals. For hard-to-abate industries like cement and steel production, it’s one of the few options that exist to help them get there.
Yet it’s proven incredibly challenging to scale the technology, which captures carbon pollution at the source. U.K.-based company Carbon Clean is leading the charge to bring down costs. This year, it raised a $150 million series C round, which the startup said is the largest-ever funding round for a point-source carbon capture company.
Carbon capture and storage is controversial in part due to the industries it serves; while cement and steel makers are among the industries that all but require CCS to lower emissions, oil and gas companies have also shown great interest. Carbon Clean’s latest funding round was led by Chevron, and the technology is seen as a potential lifeline for the fossil fuel industry, despite there being readily available alternatives like renewables and electric vehicles.
The technology has also been criticized for not delivering the emissions reductions it promises. That includes an infamous case last year involving none other than Chevron in Western Australia, in which the company missed its targets, and a Shell blue hydrogen project that emitted more carbon than it captured. The Government Accountability Office has also lambasted the Department of Energy for investing $1.1 billion in projects that largely failed to live up to expectations.
It’s against this backdrop that Carbon Clean is striving to clean up CCS’ image and deliver on its promise. Carbon Clean CEO Aniruddha Sharma told Protocol that fossil fuels are necessary, at least in the near term, to lift the living standards of those who don’t have access to cars and electricity.
While technologies like CCS hold a lot of promise, helping the world potentially address that issue while still meeting net zero goals, the risks of locking in more fossil fuel use are real, especially if Carbon Clean and other CCS companies can’t scale as promised. CCS also does nothing to help with other forms of local air pollution, which is a major public health concern.
Sharma, for his part, said he has “done nothing else but carbon capture” his professional life. Along with co-founder and CTO Prateek Bumb, he started working on Carbon Clean’s technology out of university. Bumb had done a five-month internship in Italy studying decarbonization science, and Sharma asked him who was doing that work in India. “No one,” he told him, and thus Carbon Clean was born.
He spoke to Protocol about what Carbon Clean has learned, the future of point-source CCS, as well as the role of companies like his in battling the climate crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What’s the most challenging part of carbon capture that you’re still working through?
Scale up is the most challenging part. The technology is working right now. Going from here to the next level of scale up, maybe 10 times bigger, is going to be interesting and challenging, both because you’re trying to increase the equipment size and you’re trying to increase our supply chain. Once you’ve got the materials, then you need a workshop or machining capacity capability that can actually produce the equipment specifically for you. But in the current atmosphere, that’s not something that’s necessarily available. So we’re spending a lot of time on how we scale up both the supply chain and the equipment and the delivery capability.
You just raised a $150 million series C led by Chevron. A bulk of your investment comes from fossil fuel companies, including Saudi Aramco and Equinor. How do you make sure your work isn’t just a way for them to pay to continue polluting?
President Biden is asking oil and gas companies to produce more oil, but they’re not necessarily producing that much oil because the market doesn’t necessarily see producing fossil fuels as a good thing to do. So I think people realize that there is a need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and work towards the energy transition.
From our perspective, whenever you partner with companies like Chevron, we always look for proof in the pudding. Chevron has committed $10 billion to Chevron New Energies, which is solely working on decarbonization. If they have the biggest footprint today, they’re the ones that need the most help decarbonizing.
How do you make sure the removal project doesn’t negatively impact the local communities adjacent to the carbon capture?
I think the issue is much deeper: How does the energy transition in general impact the population and the people being affected by it? When these companies start reducing their production, there will be more jobs available and you can reorient a lot of them towards decarbonization. We’re also leading the creation of a new industry that actually didn’t exist. If you think about decarbonization and the level where we need to be — or should be — over the next 10 years, you’re talking about creating five companies the size of Exxon or Chevron in the decarbonization space. These companies will employ tens of thousands of people, so we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of job opportunities to be created for decarbonization. For our company, we ensure that the impact of what we’re trying to do is translated into the local communities.
How much should your corporate clients be relying on your services when it comes to reaching their net zero or decarbonization goals? In other words, what proportion of their drawdown should come from emissions reductions versus paying for point-source carbon capture?
I generally advise our customers to diversify their options. I tell my customers that in 2024, get one unit at your site and spend 10% of your money for decarbonization using one of our carbon capture boxes, spend 10% for another form of decarbonization, and another 10% for electrification, and maybe another 10% for biomass. Try all the options across the board, so that within a year or two, you know which one or two options to scale up. Maybe carbon capture and electrification are the best options for you. If you’re in California, green hydrogen carbon capture is the perfect option for you, so we’re not saying that ours is the only solution.
But how much of their decarbonization journey should come from any sort of carbon capture versus just not having that pollution be released at all?
I think that’s where the conundrum is, right? We help decarbonize heavy industries like steel and cement, which are relatively difficult to replace in the medium term.
But you also work with fossil fuel companies, for which there are renewable alternatives.
We focus on heavy industry that is really hard to replace in the medium term. Steel, cement, chemicals—we use these things on a daily basis. If we stop producing them, then how would we progress as humanity? We have to keep using heavy industrial products for some time more. And we cannot allow them to just run like that; we have to decarbonize them today.
"We focus on heavy industry that is really hard to replace in the medium term. Steel, cement, chemicals—we use these things on a daily basis. If we stop producing them, then how would we progress as humanity?"
So is it your hope that eventually your company won’t have to exist?
I think heavy industry will always exist. So we’ll always be there supporting the decarbonization. If you think about brute numbers, 2 billion people today don’t have access to electricity. [Editor’s note: The International Energy Agency pegs that number at 770 million.] How much of an industrial output needs to be produced to elevate and alleviate poverty for 2 billion people? It’d be immoral to say, “Well, actually, you know what, steel and cement companies, stop tomorrow.”
Bigger picture: How much CCS does the world need? Put a number on what you expect. A gigaton? Less? More?
Let’s work backwards. Industrial emitters today contribute about 25% of the global carbon dioxide emissions, more or less. That’s about 10 billion tons of emissions. Even if you said that we will be able to electrify some of it or use hydrogen for some part of it, you would still need to decarbonize a significant chunk of that 10 billion tons using point-source carbon capture technologies, and they need to happen between now and 2040. As a company, we are focused on scaling our solution and the availability of that solution to a billion tons per year of carbon dioxide captured.