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Setting expectations for negative-emission systems in U.S. to protect climate

March 12, 2018
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

Nearly every major plan to limit the damage from climate change relies in part on combining bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a technology in early development known as “BECCS.” Feedstock plants would grow by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, and the carbon-dioxide generated from burning the biomass to produce electricity would be captured and permanently stored underground. Producing electricity that actually reduces CO2 has obvious appeal.

However, estimates of the potential for BECCS in any given country have been based largely on the available biomass, whether from agricultural waste, forest management or the capacity to grow plants dedicated to energy production. Past BECCS estimates have almost always overlooked whether the biomass-growing areas are located near good underground sites for storing CO2. That is a problem, because transporting either biomass or CO2 can be expensive or subject to regulatory complications.

A new study for the first time examines in detail biomass growing sites, CO2 storage sites, co-location and transportation to estimate BECCS potential in the United States. In the near term, the technology if deployed rapidly could possibly remove 100-110 million tons of CO2 annually, the study finds. That is about 1.5% of total U.S. emissions currently.

Questions about the feasibility of transportation make it important to understand the options for co-location of biomass and suitable storage. Currently, about a third of the good U.S. biomass areas are located near good storage sites, the study finds. By midcentury, a three-fold scale-up of biomass supply in basins with good CO2 storage sites could lead to a U.S. potential of 360-630 million tons, according to the study, published today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“BECCS can certainly help provide a source of negative emissions, but other approaches will also be needed to achieve the negative emissions that models suggest will be required to limit warming to 2o C,” said co-author, Sally Benson, a professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University.

Distribution of technical potential of BECCS. (A) Map of technical potential of CO2 that would be
available from biomass in 2020. Regions with highest CO2 potential and colocated storage sites
are northern Illinois basin, the Gulf region, and western North Dakota. (B) Cumulative sum of the
potential CO2 in counties with a suitable storage site for 2020 and 2040.

U.S. as bellwether

“In addition to assessing the BECCS potential, we also identify the most promising, low-cost locations to begin to deploy BECCS,” said the study’s lead author, Ejeong Baik. “The U.S. areas that would be the most effective for near-term deployment are in Illinois, western North Dakota, and some Gulf states, if the Gulf states were to begin growing a significant amount of energy crops.”

While the study shows a way for any country to estimate its BECCS potential, the United States is a good place to focus on realistic expectations. It has a relative abundance of both biomass growing and CO2 sequestering prospects.

For a carbon sequestration site to be suitable for the BECCS project or projects that will feed into it, the storage location should have the appropriate storage capacity and ability to handle the expected rate of inject