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Why the Stimulus Stake in Carbon Capture Neglects Algae Startups

bio3It could fuel fighter jets and go a long way toward cleaning up power plants, which is why the Pentagon, Silicon Valley and some of the world’s top research institutions are digging into pond scum. One place algae’s having a tough time making inroads, however, is in a multibillion-dollar section of the economic stimulus bill that could mean the difference between nascent carbon recycling technology crossing over “death valley” into commercial viability — or facing a major battle with coal companies’ underground carbon storage schemes for years to come. With Congress now working on a final version of the bill for President Obama to sign by the end of the week, some algae entrepreneurs are asking why legislators have left them out in the cold.

Bottom line: Commercial-scale carbon capture is risky and unproven by any means. But commercial-scale carbon capture and recycling (turning it into other usable products, rather than shoving it underground) by startups with pond scum — or other high-tech solutions — may still be too big a gamble, and too expensive, for even a government toying with around $800 billion.

It’s inevitable with a spending bill of this size for the government to pick winners and losers among competing technologies. And when it comes to carbon capture, it has favored incumbent (read: coal) energy producers’ plan to pipe emissions underground — a temporary solution — over lab researchers’ and fledgling companies’ schemes to recycle CO2 using algae, solar reactors, synthetic genomic-based life forms and other technologies.

Here’s the problem: While according to Alex Klein, research director for Emerging Energy Research’s clean power generation group, shoving millions of tons of carbon dioxide underground presents a technologically simpler challenge than recycling it, storage space will eventually run out. With recycling, you don’t have that problem. The idea is to use carbon-fed, algae-derived biofuels to replace petroleum based fuels, thus reducing total CO2 emissions.

The House version of the bill allocates $2.4 billion for “necessary expenses to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” as authorized under part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which provides for developing what’s called geologic storage of carbon dioxide — basically holding it in the reserves from which it was mined. This means algae startups like Ternion Bio and GreenFuel Technologies, which capture carbon emissions from industrial flues and “feed” them to algae for use in other products, don’t qualify. (For the carbon capture funds, that is. Biofuels funding comes under a separate section.)

The current Senate version leaves the door cracked open for a broader range of technologies, with at least $4.6 billion set aside for carbon capture and storage, including a portion for projects that demonstrate carbon capture from industrial sources. Algae technologies would be potential candidates for those funds.

President Obama and Congress are grappling with this issue in a time when “clean coal” advocates face growing opposition — and on the heels of similar legislation in Europe and Canada, which greenlighted C$1 billion ($812 million) for a fund that will finance CCS, a move seen by some environmentalists as a way to divert clean energy funds to fossil fuel-based power generation.

Ternion Bio thinks it can undercut geologic storage on price, and so it wants Congress to give priority to carbon capture projects that are cost effective, according to Elizabeth Moeller, public policy group leader for Pillsbury Winthrop in D.C. and a lobbyist for Ternion Bio. This would be something new for CO2 recyclers, as the technology has historically been considered too expensive to pursue commercially. Given access to equal funds, it’s possible that a nimble startup could progress faster than big coal companies, which have so far invested more in advertising the potential for cleaner coal technologies than in actually developing them. Whether Congress wants to take that chance remains to be seen.

The point of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka stimulus package) is to jumpstart the economy, to get dollars moving again. President Obama also wants it to invest in long-term economic growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture is squeezing in on just one of those goals — potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a comprehensive energy portfolio overhaul. Unlike private investors (and some states), which have invested millions of dollars in early stage algae bioreactor technology, Congress may not see the same opportunity in R&D for carbon capture and recycling.

Image of bioreactor pilot project courtesy of GreenShift Corp.

10 Responses to “Why the Stimulus Stake in Carbon Capture Neglects Algae Startups”

  1. Sadly, capturing carbon from a power plant in algae then using the algae for fuel or cattlefeed is not sustainable, and could even make the problem worse than not capturing at all!
    There are effectively two carbon cycles on earth: on a decades scale it cycles between air, ocean, soil, and biota. Over millennia, it can be bound into minerals as rocks weather and as some organisms are buried instead of decaying, and released later by tectonics. Our key problem is that burning coal and oil rapidly adds to the carbon in the short cycle. Capturing it in algae does not take it back out of the short cycle unless you then bury it. And if you do that, you may as well run the power station on the algae and leave the coal in the ground.
    So algal capture is hardly a solution. If used as cattle cake it may reemerge as methane, and that could be worse than not having captured it at all.