Klaus S. Lackner - The Energy Transition and the Role of Direct Air Capture
From Katie Gentilello
The rapid drop in the price of renewable energy portends massive changes in the world’s energy infrastructure and offers hope that climate change can be addressed. Incumbent fossil fuel technologies, hamstrung by concerns over climate change, will are having difficulties to adapt to the new world. To avert a climate disaster, the energy transition must happen fast. However, it will likely take too long. Like any transition in a complex system, it very likely will introduce instabilities. Yet the transition must be executed flawlessly because, just like climate change, large-scale interruptions in energy services could have global catastrophic consequences.
Growing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption are the main cause of climate change. Excess carbon dioxide will linger in the atmosphere for centuries. Decades of procrastination have put the world on a trajectory that will overshoot the climate targets set by the international community. The uncontrolled dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will have to stop, and carbon excess will have to be removed from the environment. The scale of the necessary drawdown is far beyond the scope of capture by photosynthetic processes and storage in natural sinks. Direct capture of carbon dioxide from ambient air combined with technical carbon storage offers a scalable solution to this waste management problem.
Eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector and cleaning up prior emissions is a gargantuan task likely lead by renewable energy. Even though the intermittency of renewable energy poses a formidable challenge, renewable energy is already pushing into the market and is beginning to displace fossil energy sources.
Yet, displacing oil and gas for long-term storage and transportation, especially aviation, will be difficult. However, production of synthetic fuels and substitutes for petrochemical from renewable energy, carbon dioxide and water will make abandoning carbonaceous fuels and materials unnecessary.
Advances in direct air capture enable a complete transition to renewable energy without abandoning existing energy infrastructures and combine this transition with the necessary massive drawdown of excess carbon in the environment. We will discuss the technologic and economic requirements, consider possible pathways and highlight gaps in our current understanding. In summary, we argue that photovoltaic electricity should not be shoe-horned into the existing electricity grid but be fed into a large and diverse supply chain, that provides grid electricity, charges batteries for short term storage, produces a variety of fuels and chemicals, produces synthetic hydrocarbon storage to iron out variability in resource availability on timescales ranging from weeks to decades and lastly powers the drawdown of excess carbon from the environment. The least developed aspect of this vision is direct air capture technology. It appears within reach, but it will need a global development effort to succeed.