Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, has taken a shine to an idea from a Silicon Valley startup to capture and recycle carbon emissions. The coal giant announced today that it has invested $15 million into 3-year-old Calera, which has developed technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities, and with the addition of waste water or brine, uses it to produce cement and other building materials.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman got the scoop from an unnamed source earlier this month that Peabody would soon announce a stake in Calera (venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s “favorite baby right now”), but the companies have just publicly confirmed and revealed the amount of the investment this morning.
Khosla, whose firm Khosla Ventures has invested some $50 million in Calera, boasted in a Times piece this weekend, “With this technology, coal can be cleaner than solar and wind, because they can only be carbon-neutral.”
High-profile backers aside, the company’s claims have drawn criticism in recent months. Last spring (when the company had a diagram of its process on display at the California Academy of Sciences) Ken Caldiera, a professor in the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology who studies carbon sequestration, said that from the publicly available info about Calera’s technology, it seems to go “in the wrong direction and will tend to increase and not decrease atmospheric CO2 content.”
Calera currently has a demonstration project at a natural gas-fueled power plant near Moss Landing, Calif., but like the rest of the carbon capture and sequestration sector, it has yet to be proven at commercial scale. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it in a talk with Department of Energy chief Steven Chu, carbon capture remains in the beta phase and still needs some “debugging.”
Emerging Energy Research noted in a recent report that it will be the six global supermajors — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total — that will be at the front of the line to benefit from hefty carbon capture investments coming down the pike from countries that rely heavily on energy from coal. But for startups that offer a key technology for the carbon capture process itself, Lux Research analyst Mark Bunger, who heads up the firm’s Biosciences division, has told us, “there are going to be buyers.”
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