Articles & Media

Logan Bowers is a small business owner & engineer. Born and raised in Seattle, Logan graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and has worked in the software industry for over 15 years. He & his wife also own Hashtag Cannabis in Seattle and Redmond, employing a staff of 27.

Editor’s Note:
What to do when reducing emissions just isn’t enough? There is a growing body of research on what we call “Plan B” solutions with the goal of removing and storing more CO2 from the air than we emit.  Major prospects include:

  • Direct atmospheric removal through enhanced biological processes, such as tree planting, wood buildings, and agriculture biochar; and

  • Technologies to intercept naturally occurring CO2 emissions (e.g. bio-digestion, capturing dairy methane, and recovering energy from wood & agricultural scraps, algae, kelp, etc.)  

In future articles we’ll examine the demanding requirements to make such solutions practical —  scaling, safety, sustainability and economics. We’ll also consider how Washington state can prosper.  

For now, guest author Logan Bowers takes a look at one promising development: Allam Cycle Machines.

Recent advances in power generation technology, called “Allam Cycle” machines, can enable us to produce electrical power that’s not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.

Here’s how it would work:  

  • Trees and crops are grown and harvested on Washington’s farms and in forests, removing CO2 from the atmosphere
  • Waste biomass from farms and timber mills is purchased as fuel for a new kind of power plant leveraging a new electrical generation technique known as the Allam Cycle. This kind of power plant produces pure CO2 as a byproduct and has no smoke stack
  • The pure CO2 output from Allam Cycle plants is collected and transported via pipeline to sequestration sites
  • Through purpose-drilled wells, CO2 is pumped deep under the ground and/or under the ocean into large volcanic basalt formations
  • In just 2-5 years, the CO2 in these basalt formations is converted into solid rock and sequestered permanently

With the right set of incentives and regulations, Washington can be a world leader in carbon sequestration, providing a large and sustained economic boost to rural and maritime areas of Washington State harvesting biomass, laying pipeline, and drilling sequestration wells. To jump start an enduring sequestration economy, the State should develop feasibility studies  and then enact policies and regulations in key areas:

  • Pricing or regulating carbon use to favor carbon neutral fuel (e.g biomass) over carbon emissive (e.g. natural gas)
  • Identifying the best sequestration locations in the State and the needed pipeline infrastructure to reach them
  • Permitting and regulation frameworks for private drilling and operation of sequestration wells
  • Integrating Allam Cycle type power plants into electric utility plans for new power generation

This is a carpe diem opportunity for Washington state to seize the leadership position in a major new market that boots our forestry, maritime, and agricultural industries.

Overview

The world has approximately 10 years to reduce all carbon emissions to zero if we want to achieve the Paris Agreement target of a 1.5℃ rise in global temperatures. If we wish to avoid a 2℃ rise, we have a still challenging 28 years. Completely decarbonizing the United States in 10 years is no longer viable in any realistic scenario, though it would be possible to achieve the 2℃ target by immediately kicking off a $15 trillion crash program—an undertaking 500 times larger than the Manhattan Project. Even under this incredibly ambitious path, Washington State will see sea level rises that wipe out most of the industrial tidelands of Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver. Large swaths of Everett through Snohomish, Mount Vernon, Aberdeen, Olympia, and various other coastal towns will end up underwater.

However, even if completely decarbonizing in time can’t be achieved, we can reverse the damaging effects by transitioning to carbon negative economy—one that sequesters (buries) more carbon than it emits. Over decades, not only can we reverse the damage and hit the 1.5℃ target, but we can continue to bury carbon until we reach pre-industrial averages, potentially negating any long term damage from climate change.

Decarbonization policies are typically framed as a tradeoff between prosperity today and ecology tomorrow. It was under the auspices of a tradeoff between economic growth and a sustainable environment that Washington residents rejected I-732. Post election results showed the lowest support came from counties that house and depend on forestry, agriculture, and our other natural resources most threatened by climate change. But in the two short years since I-732’s defeat, technological advancement opens a path where Washington can fight climate change in a way that grows Washington’s industrial sectors and reduces our carbon emissions to zero—or even negative. Washington can be an environmental leader specifically by leveraging and growing our agriculture, forestry, and maritime industries—but only if we choose to invest in the new technologies that make it possible.

Key Technology Development — Allam Cycle Power Generation

Four months ago, NETPower, a power generation company in Texas, fired up a new kind of natural gas power plant: One without a smoke stack. Using a newly developed thermodynamic cycle, the Allam Cycle (Figure 1), NETPower’s natural gas plant produces pure high pressure CO2 (in lieu of any flue or exhaust), a small amount of water, and effectively no other pollutants. CO2 produced in this concentrated and pressurized form is ideal for piping deep into the ground for permanent geologic sequestration or commercial uses.

Figure 1. The NetPower Allam Cycle generator produces electrical power and a pure CO2 stream and water, with no exhaust stack.

While traditional power plants can be retrofitted to concentrate (“capture”) CO2 in their waste streams for long-term storage (“sequestration”), concentrating CO2 from flue gases is both energy intensive and expensive. A combined cycle natural gas power plant needs to burn 11-22% more fuel to produce the same output with carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment. These additional energy inputs can reach up to 40% for coal-fired power plants, and in both cases the lion’s share of that energy and economic cost is associated with the capture not the storage part of the equation. An Allam Cycle plant, however, captures 100% of its waste CO2 while consuming the same or less fuel as a traditional, non-capturing power plant.

Business Prospects for Washington

The Allam Cycle plant offers the potential to deliver economic power generation with CO2 sequestration unlocking a pro-economy, pro-jobs industry in Washington State.1 Here’s how it works:

Washington Industry #1: Power Generation

Washington already has a massive power generation industry due to our green sources of hydroelectric power. By building Allam Cycle power plants in Washington State, as alternative to both peaker and base load natural gas plants, we can grow our portfolio of pollution-free power generation beyond our rivers and streams. Using our existing transmission infrastructure, Washington State can export that power to the 13 states and provinces in the Western Interconnect, adding jobs and growing a key existing state export: electricity. Such plants are also free from wind and sun reliance that limits the scalability of wind and solar power generation.  

Washington Industry #2: Carbon Sequestration

To Washington’s advantage, our region’s geology is uniquely well-suited to the permanent burial and sequestration of carbon. Over millions of years volcanoes in our region deposited layer upon layer of basalt, which are now buried thousands of feet under the surface of the Earth and ocean floor (Figure 2). Basalt reacts chemically with CO2 to permanently solidify CO2 and trap it underground forever in a natural, pollution-free process known as “weathering.” Weathering naturally occurs on a time scale of millions of years, but we can accelerate the weathering process by directly injecting CO2 into these basalt formations, safely locking away carbon pollution indefinitely in just a few years.

Figure 2: Deep-sea basalt region for CO2 sequestration. (Figure 4 from July 22, 2008 paper by Goldberg, Takahashi, and Slagle in PNAS titled “Carbon dioxide in deep-sea basalt”).

Imagine thousands of jobs both, onshore and off, drilling wells into the ground. But, instead of using those wells to extract dirty, polluting oil, we pump highly concentrated CO2 from Allam Cycle power plants into the ground where it can be permanently stored forever. We could be the first state in the nation with a reverse-petroleum industry!

In 2017, federal lawmakers expanded tax credits up to $50/ton for secure geological storage under a tax program known as 45Q. To date, 45Q has been leveraged almost exclusively by petroleum companies engaging in Enhanced Oil Recovery. No companies currently utilize this credit in Washington State. Sequestering CO2 from a single 250MW power plant, however, would bring in an approximately $45M/yr in federal tax credits to Washington businesses drilling wells and building pipelines.

Several pilot basalt layer wells have already been drilled—including by our local Pacific Northwest National Labs. Published results from similar wells in Iceland show sequestration becomes permanent in just a few years. Estimates suggest that offshore capacity in Washington alone is sufficient to sequester 100% of the United States’ CO2 emissions for the next 100 years. We could create thousands of jobs drilling burial wells and maintaining our sequestration infrastructure effectively in perpetuity.

Washington Industry #3: Biomass Forestry and Agricultural Waste Processing

A natural gas power plant that buries its CO2 waste is carbon neutral (it buries as much carbon in the ground as natural gas is dug up to fuel the plant).  We can do even better and generate carbon negative electricity, by leveraging biomass waste from our rich agricultural and forestry lands. The WA Department of Ecology estimated that Washington produces enough waste biomass to supply nearly half of the State’s residential electricity needs.  Most of this waste can be converted into synthetic natural gas (syngas) and burned in a NETPower plant instead of natural gas. Since carbon in biomass comes overwhelmingly from the atmosphere via plant photosynthesis, burning biomass as fuel and sequestering the resultant CO2 would remove carbon from the atmosphere, creating an overall fuel cycle that removes CO2 from the air.

When used for fuel, Washington’s farmers and loggers would be paid for their cellulosic waste (e.g. waste sawdust and wheat straw), turning a waste stream into a new revenue source and creating a competitive advantage for our rural industries. We would create jobs processing the waste for combustion while also boosting jobs & activity in Washington’s traditional industries that produce the waste. The additional revenue stream would help Washington’s farms and industries more favorably compete in the global market where their competitors aren’t generating the same revenue from their waste streams.

Building a new Carbon Sequestration Industry

Standing up an entirely new industry—CO2 capture and sequestration—is not easy, but by being a leader in the space, Washington has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish itself as the dominant economic center of the green economy. The upfront capital costs are not small, but once the initial investment is made the infrastructure acts as a magnet for private follow-on growth.

The following are the key areas where Washington needs to lead with smart policy so that the industry will follow. While the basic framework is straightforward, each area will require some study to determine the exact changes needed in laws or regulations.

  1. Establish a Price for Carbon – Placing a surcharge on fossil-fuel derived carbon encourages investment in and use of biomass as a feedstock instead of natural gas, coal, or petroleum. The price should be high enough to ensure biomass is an economically attractive option on an ongoing basis.

    Suggested Policy Study: Determine the required carbon price by surveying farms and timber mills to determine minimum viable price to purchase biomass, and estimate the cost of processing into syngas for use in power generation.

  2. Establish an Incentive for Sequestration – Paying for the sequestration of carbon is what fundamentally motivates utilities to invest in CCS power plants. Federal 45Q incentives already provide significant economic support, but Washington may need to provide supplemental or time-limited extra incentives to jump start the industry.

    Suggested Policy Study: Determine the required sequestration subsidy required to make the drilling of wells economically viable in Washington by using geologic surveys and pilot project data to estimate well cost vs well productivity.

  3. Clear the feasibility pathway for rapid development that attracts investors – This work should include economics, ecological safety, scalability, and the regulatory framework.  Effective policy and regulations can remove uncertainty and provide well-marked runways for development, including:
    1. Establish Permitting and Regulations for Drilling and Pipelines – Petroleum-producing States have over 5000 miles of pipelines carrying CO2 for injection into the ground for enhanced oil recovery, while Washington has zero. Establishing clear permitting rules and sequestration rights enables private to accurately estimate the costs and timelines for developing infrastructure in the State.
    2. Identify the Best Sequestration Sites – Identifying State-preferred sequestration sites (both on and offshore) and fast tracking permitting in those areas reduces cost and risk for industry participants.
    3. Plan Pipeline Infrastructure – Identifying State-preferred paths for pipelines from power generating sites to preferred sequestration areas facilitates forming the pipeline network that acts as the connective tissue between CO2 production and sequestration. The State should also analyze whether pipeline infrastructure should fully private, regulated as a utility, or even public infrastructure.
  4. Incentivize Inclusion of CO2 Sequestration in Utilities’ IRPs – Utilities must plan their power generation capacity years in advance, through a process known as an Integrated Resource Plan. While utilities in Washington State assume there will be a price on carbon in the future, even the largest utilities in the State do not consider building generation sources with carbon capture. We need to align our utility Integrated Resource Planning with carbon neutral or negative power generation.  We could, for example, grant a utility extra Renewable Energy Credits for building the first carbon-capturing power plant.

Summary

Absent a crash program 500 times larger than the Manhattan Project, the US will not hit carbon emission goals for only a 1.5℃ temperature rise using renewables alone. We absolutely must sequester carbon on a large scale, and this technology is one of several with the potential to implement Plan B — carbon negativity.

Washington is possibly the best region in the world do to so economically. The combination of Washington’s biomass-producing industries and unique geologic formations make us uniquely well suited to the task.

Washington state should act now to embrace this opportunity by preparing the pathway to successful development.  A carbon sequestration industry is likely to bring thousands of enduring, well-paying, working-class employment primarily in rural areas. Managing climate change is a long term activity, with steady long-term demand for new carbon sequestration wells—both onshore and offshore. Forestry is today, and likely will be for the foreseeable future, the most economical way to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, providing a lasting competitive advantage to Washington’s timber industries as their waste stream turns into a more valuable feedstock.

Opportunities to stand up a completely new industry do not present themselves often, and Washington is well-positioned to seize it. Let’s move in that direction.

Low Carbon
Prosperity
Institute

The Low Carbon Prosperity Institute is a fiscally sponsored project of the Washington Business Alliance, a 501c(3) organization, and part of its PlanWashington Initiative. For more information please contact info@wabusinessalliance.org or call (206) 441-5101.