Carbon dioxide removal startups are heading to Washington
Welcome to Protocol Climate. Summer heat is officially in full effect across the Northern Hemisphere. If you live there, we hope you’re beating it. Today, we’re talking about how tech can help do just that. But first, we’re diving into a new carbon removal trade group looking to build the industry’s clout in Washington.
Carbon dioxide removal goes to Washington
Move over, Silicon Valley. Washington, D.C., is fast becoming a hub for carbon dioxide removal action. On Tuesday, the Carbon Business Council announced its arrival. The group of more than 40 companies is setting up shop in the nation’s capital in an effort to give smaller CDR startups leverage over the policies that could control their fate.
- The group includes companies in their early stages and some that have received series D funding, Ben Rubin, the executive director and co-founder, told Protocol.
- It’s also tech-neutral, featuring companies that remove and utilize carbon with a range of techniques.
Moving into Washington is a smart strategy for CDR. The tech industry has committed large sums of money through Frontier and the First Movers Coalition in an effort to create a market for CDR. But tech innovation and cash aren’t enough to scale an industry that currently pulls thousands of tons of carbon out of the air per year into one that safely snags 1 billion or more tons annually.
- Policies that support the industry’s growth as well as federal research and procurement dollars will also be key to bringing down costs to the fabled $100 per ton threshold to make CDR somewhat affordable. The Carbon Business Council gives smaller companies a chance to advocate for just those things.
- “Alone, we're easy to miss, but working together we're hard to ignore," Jonas Lee, the CCO of CarbonCapture, a coalition member, said in a statement.
Carbon removal could be the lone bipartisan climate solution. As the death of Build Back Better (again) showed last week, getting transformative climate policy passed in the Senate is nigh impossible as long as the filibuster and a slim majority that features Sen. Joe Manchin are in place. But Rubin said there’s ample room for consensus on supporting CDR in its many forms.
- The already existing 45Q tax credit for carbon capture and storage has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Rubin said tweaking the tax credit to “allow more startups to compete and partake in that” could be an area where the council looks to put some effort.
- The council has already thrown its support behind the so-called CREST Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Susan Collins and Maria Cantwell that would spur more federal research and invest more money in various types of carbon removal.
- The Department of Energy is also teeing up $3.5 billion for direct air-capture hubs care of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The council also wants members to remove carbon, responsibly. It’s easy to get fixated on the shiny tech and VC cash flowing into CDR. But there’s a moral aspect to the industry as well, something the council wants to put front and center.
- “Carbon management is important enough and critical enough,” Rubin said, to warrant a pledge like the Hippocratic Oath. And so the council has what it’s calling an Oath to Restore the Earth.
- The oath focuses on ethical deployment of CDR and supporting emissions reductions, because the easiest ton of carbon pollution to clean is the one that doesn’t get emitted in the first place.
The startup 'pioneering' how to keep homes cool
As record heat waves scorch the U.S. and EU this week, it’s never been more clear we need to figure out how to stay cool without worsening climate change. That means eliminating fossil fuels from our HVAC systems, something a number of startups are working to do. I spoke with Kathy Hannun, the CEO and co-founder of one, to see what can be done.
Hannun heads Dandelion Energy, a geothermal energy startup operating in the Northeast. The company emerged from her research and work as a part of Alphabet’s X innovation lab, which prioritizes “moonshot” projects. While drilling into the Earth’s crust to access thermal energy for home use has been fairly widespread in countries like Sweden, Hannun recognized that it was a relatively untapped opportunity in the U.S.
The project didn’t quite fit the definition of “moonshot,” though, given that geothermal technology already existed. So Hannun took a leap and spun Dandelion off from X in 2017. While finding funding and grappling with all the potential crises inherent in energy entrepreneurship were not small tasks, the move has paid off. Five years later, Hannun said, the company is growing as fast as can be.
Read on for an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What sets Dandelion Energy apart from other home energy companies?
Dandelion is the only company out there in the U.S. really tackling the problem of making residential geothermal heating and cooling systems affordable and widely available to the mainstream consumer. Geothermal heating and cooling has actually existed in the U.S. for many decades, but it tended to be a luxury product. One of my impetuses for starting the company was examining why it’s so expensive, and developing a deep conviction that it really doesn't have to be.
We're applying a lot of the strategies that the rooftop solar industry put in place 10 to 15 years ago in order to take what was once this very boutique, high-end installation and make it much more standardized, scalable and available to the millions of homeowners who need a better option for heating and cooling.
What is unique about geothermal as an option for heating and cooling?
The thing that's really special about geothermal heat pumps is that, because they're thermally connected to the ground and the ground doesn't really change temperature over the course of the year, they're able to deliver heating and cooling more efficiently to the home than any other type of system. And that matters because the more efficient the heating and cooling system, the less the homeowner is going to have to pay for the energy to heat and cool their home.
We did an analysis of how much money could people save if they hypothetically switched from these expensive fossil heating fuels to geothermal heat pumps — especially in these cold regions where people use the most energy for heating — and it was just astronomical. So it seemed like this great opportunity where the financial interests of homeowners were very well aligned with the most environmentally friendly solution. Geothermal also reduces summer peak loads on the grid and stabilizes the grid because it's so efficient, and you're not getting these huge air conditioner surges that really stress the grid when it gets hot. So homeowners, utilities and the environment all stand to benefit a lot from greater adoption of air source heat pumps.
What are some of the challenges you’ve run into in the five years since Dandelion’s official founding?
After we figured out the fundraising, a lot of the challenge is just the nuts and bolts of trying to figure out how you start and grow a business, alongside all the domain-specific things like installing geothermal heat pumps and working with homeowners and services. One of the hard things about running a heating and cooling business is that if your product stops working, or even just doesn't work perfectly, it's a huge emergency for that homeowner. So we really had to have a very high standard for quality and be ready to respond to homeowners very quickly and have great customer service.
The latest challenge that we've overcome is that we grew to a scale where there were not enough drillers that we could hire to put in ground loops, which are part of the geothermal system, and so we realized we're going to need to grow our own drilling operation. We went to Sweden, the world leader of geothermal heating and cooling, and they taught us so much about how to do this optimally and in a way that hasn't been adopted at all in the U.S. Now, we’re pioneering it here and it has allowed us to grow the company very rapidly over the last six months; we've already installed more geothermal in the first six months of this year than we installed in all of last year.
Keep an eye out for more on Dandelion and Hannun’s decision to spin the company off from X innovation lab, coming soon in our How I Decided interview series.— Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)
A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO
The emissions that make up a full greenhouse gas footprint can emanate from outside the four walls of your own manufacturing operations, like in the case of PepsiCo, where 93% of emissions come from its value chain.
One big number: 47 degrees Celsius
The temperatures are too damn high all across Europe. A heat wave for the ages is blanketing the continent and the U.K., smashing dozens of all-time records and cracking the 40-degrees-Celsius mark for the first time. The highest temperature so far is 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit — or 47 degrees Celsius, for our non-U.S. readers — in Portugal over the weekend. Heat will continue to shift east in the coming days, endangering people and property.
Hundreds have already perished across Europe and more could die as previously unheard of temperatures grip the continent. Infrastructure has failed in stunning fashion: In France, overheating rivers normally used to cool nuclear reactors curtailed power production; in the U.K., airport runways melted and trains were slowed due to fears of tracks buckling; and high overnight temperatures across the region have ensured that millions without access to air conditioning are at risk of heat-related illness.
Homes, technology and social patterns built for the 20th century climate can’t cope with this hotter, angrier regime. That speaks to the need for rethinking our infrastructure, from cooling systems right up to the grid. With searing heat bearing down on Texas and the Plains on Tuesday, we’ll get still another reminder of the work that needs to happen. Fast.
— Brian Kahn
Meanwhile, some heat that’s good news: Nuclear fusion company TAE announced it had contained plasma at 75 million degrees Celsius. It’s a major milestone, but generating net energy from fusion is still quite a ways away.
Crypto’s carbon footprint is on Congressional Democrats’ radar. A group of six senators and representatives sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy detailing their findings on crypto mining’s energy use and asking for regulations.
Adam Neumann’s crypto-carbon offset scheme is in trouble as crypto winter sets in. Who could possibly have seen this coming?
Net zero might not be enough. Activists want companies to commit to “real zero” emissions in their climate plans, without relying on carbon offsets. (At least one utility has already done that; we’ll see if other companies follow.)
Rooftop solar is absolutely booming in China. The country plans to install 108 gigawatts of rooftop solar this year, nearly double last year’s total.
Do not sleep on smart electric panels. They’re the unseen climate tech that could make or break the grid as we race to electrify everything.
A deep sea mining moratorium might actually happen. A growing number of countries have expressed opposition to finding the critical minerals needed for batteries on the ocean floor, citing the unknown consequences and potential ecological damage.
— Brian Kahn
A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO
Asking suppliers and associated companies to overhaul the way they work is no small feat, but PepsiCo is taking a three-pronged approach centered around the principles of educating, enabling and incentivizing. The Sustainability Action Center aims to engage and equip value chain partners with tools to undergo their own sustainability journey.
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