Cutting through the carbon jargon

What if instead of letting greenhouse gases escape from power plants, you could grab that carbon dioxide before it even reaches the atmosphere?

It’s a simple idea that’s getting a lot more attention as concerns grow over the effects of burning fossil fuels that power many industries and generate a large share of the nation’s electricity.

This idea has a name: carbon capture — two words that have created a whole new set of jargon within the energy industry.

Carbon capture is an expensive and complicated idea to turn into a widespread reality. But understanding some of the terminology associated with this complex process can shed light on this unique way of managing greenhouse gases. Let’s take a closer look at three key terms related to carbon capture.

Net zero. This means you don’t increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — essentially, any greenhouse gas you emit is reduced in some other way. Net zero typically takes the form of a nation or commercial business setting a goal to offset carbon emissions it produces from burning coal, oil or natural gas.

Those offsets can be as simple as planting lots of trees that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen as part of their photosynthesis process. Or it can be as complex as building high-tech equipment to remove greenhouse gases before they reach the air or even after they are emitted. Furthermore, some industries intend to pursue electrification of their operations, which would have profound impacts on electric cooperatives and other electric utilities.

Net zero was first widely discussed 10 years ago, as countries met to negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement and determine the language to discuss reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, nearly 500 nations, cities and states and more than 700 companies have set goals of reaching net zero within the next 30 years.

Another term for net zero is “carbon neutral.” In 2020, Microsoft Corporation announced a goal of going carbon negative, meaning it would remove more greenhouse gas from the air than it emits. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the Carbon Negative Shot, a project to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere that borrows the “moonshot” phrase for other ambitious projects.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage. This is one tool for reaching net zero. In the past, it was simply called “carbon capture,” but is now often referred to as CCUS.

Nearly 50 years ago, the idea of preventing carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere started when carbon dioxide in natural gas wells was captured and then reinjected underground to boost production from oil wells.

As concerns grew about the effects of greenhouse gas, researchers started exploring technology that would remove the carbon dioxide from coal power plant exhaust, then permanently store it in underground rock formations, adding the word “storage.” The word “utilization” became another part of the phrase as efforts grew to find other uses for the carbon dioxide, particularly to make cement and other building materials.

CCUS has been criticized by some as being expensive and a distraction from the goal of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. However, with projections that even by 2050 nearly half the electricity in the U.S. will still be generated by coal or natural gas, a recent federal report says, “CCUS has a critical role to play in decarbonizing the global economy.” The 2021 federal infrastructure law includes some $12 billion for CCUS development as well as potentially lucrative tax credits such as Section 45Q carbon sequestration incentives.

Carbon dioxide removal. CDR for short, this term doesn’t center on keeping greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere but rather taking it out of the air. It’s also often referred to as direct air capture (DAC). One company is starting to build industrial plants for just that purpose. Other businesses are already using carbon dioxide from DAC for other reasons, like fertilizer production.

There’s no denying the drive toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing electrification across the economy, and it will require a variety of approaches — from innovative carbon capture equipment, to reforestation, to energy efficiency.