Arizona Scientists Aim to ‘Scrub’ Greenhouse Gas from the Air

TEMPE – It looks like a carpet and acts like a sponge, but it’s actually a key innovation aimed at curbing rising carbon dioxide levels in the air.

Allen Wright directs the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University and has spent more than 15 years researching ways to “scrub” the dangerous greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

“Most of the scientific community believe that removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is going to be a necessary component of the strategies that we will use to deal with this rising CO₂ level in the environment,” Wright said, standing in his lab and illuminated in a fuchsia glow.

“Those early days, nobody knew anything. Most people thought it couldn’t be done, or it would never be done or there was no way to do it.”

Wright accepted the challenge of collecting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, in 2003, started Global Research Technology in Tucson. He joined the ASU center in 2014.

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He and his team have been working on a material that captures CO₂ from the atmosphere in hopes of one day countering the warming effects of greenhouse gases on a larger scale. But they’re a long way from scaling up to commercial applications, which are likely to be costly.

“As it gives off water vapor, it soaks up CO₂,” Wright said about his technology, which looks a lot like shag carpet but actually is a porous plastic infused with an anionic resin. As the material dries, it attracts carbon dioxide from the air. When it gets wet, the gas is released back into the atmosphere.

But capturing the gas is just part of the solution. Wright said an everyday way to collect the gas for sequestration and store it as a gas, liquid or solid is needed. Some sequestration occurs naturally, including in forests and oceans, but what happens when there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere for nature to handle?

“Unless you can get your hands on it (carbon dioxide), you can’t do anything,” he said.

Carbon dioxide made up 81 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities in 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse gases trap heat and raise atmospheric temperatures. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past four years have been the hottest on record.

Allen Wright has been working with a team at Arizona State University to develop a material that captures carbon dioxide. (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Last year, national carbon dioxide levels increased 3.4 percent, the second largest annual gain since 1996, according to preliminary data released by Rhodium, a New York research group.
The report noted an increased demand for air travel and diesel fuel as the leading causes.

“The transportation sector retained its title as the largest source of CO₂ emissions in the U.S. for the third year running,” the report said.

Everyday commuters also play a role in heightened greenhouse-gas emissions.

Wright used a 1-pound bag of sand to demonstrate how much carbon dioxide one car puts into the atmosphere with every mile on the road.

“If a car gets 20 miles a gallon, that’s the weight of the carbon dioxide that you put in the air every mile that you drive,” Wright said. “I live 18 pounds from here.”

– Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Annual data by the Arizona Department of Transportation show vehicle registrations in the state, including total commercial and private vehicles, increased from 7.9 million to 8.5 million from 2016 to 2018.

Rhodium said its researchers don’t expect CO₂ levels to increase as much this year mainly because of continued closures of coal-powered energy plants and a slower economic year.

Despite this, Wright said continuously paying attention to CO₂ levels and pushing toward innovative ways to deal with emissions will help secure a safer, and greener future.

He and his team at ASU hope to make CO₂ capture devices more readily available. However, that dream will take more time and money to get the technology ready for large-scale use. Wright estimated the total costs of research and construction of the first large commercial prototype would have a $20 million price tag.

“We pay companies to come and haul our garbage off to the dump. We pay taxes to have infrastructure in cities that take care of sewage and waste and all this stuff,” he said. “We haven’t done anything with CO₂ yet, so that’s what we need to do.”

From Kaiser to Vail Ski Resorts, Companies Doubled their Wind and Solar in 2018

DENVER – Corporate investments in renewable energy used to be symbolic. A few solar panels here, a small wind farm investment there. But in 2018 some companies became voracious green energy consumers.

Kaiser Permanente’s Denver administrative office is awash with rooftop solar and solar panels on carports.

The arrays were added in 2015, but in 2018 Kaiser wanted to make a bigger dent toward the company’s carbon neutral goal. So it inked a deal to buy 180 megawatts of new wind and solar from sites in Arizona and California. This is a tremendous amount of green power, a magnitude that only interested utilities a decade ago.

“Corporate procurement has really started to drive a lot of the market….[That] supports an incredible amount of jobs for consultants, for engineers, for contractors and construction workers. It’s definitely driving a lot of economic activity,” said Brian McCurdy, founder of Greycliff Advisors LLC, a consultant that represents renewable energy developers, utilities and large corporations.

Across the nation, companies doubled the amount of wind and solar purchase agreements in 2018. One driver was soon to expire federal tax credits. The key driver, however, is investor and customer preference for green energy. Even after President Donald Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, companies continued to double down on green efforts.

“Are they losing money? Hopefully not,” said Kevin Haley, a program manager at the Business Renewables Center at Rocky Mountain Institute. “These contracts are long term. Many of them are anywhere from 10 to 20 years, and over the lifetime of that contract they are projected to be revenue positive for the company.”

Here’s how these power purchase agreements work: A company like Kaiser agrees to buy green power at a fixed price for several years, typically decades. That energy doesn’t directly power company buildings, it instead goes into the electric grid. Over time, companies can make money through sales of that wholesale power on the market. The ultimate goal is for the revenue to be greater or equal to a company’s overall electric bill.

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Corporate giants like Facebook, Walmart, Microsoft and Apple made big deals in 2018, but now smaller corporate fish have waded into the pond.

“We had Etsy do a deal last year, J.M. Smucker Company that makes jellies and jams,” Haley said. “It’s a great way for them to reduce a lot of carbon all at once.”

Colorado-based Vail Resorts has joined the ranks of small companies as well. It inked a 12-year agreement to buy new wind that will be produced from a Nebraska farm starting in 2020. When the wind farm is operational, the purchased power will offset Vail’s fossil fuel use across North America.

“This is the way that a company that’s geographically diverse can make a significant impact and bring new renewable resources online,” said Kate Wilson, director of sustainability for Vail Resorts.

The ski company won’t talk about how much that’ll cost. They’ve taken other steps though, such as the installation of solar at resorts. Vail has also signed up with Xcel Energy to pay for a solar energy subscription.

That’s one small way utilities are helping companies get more renewables. Xcel’s subscription program, Renewable Connect, sold out in one day.

“That was a pretty good indicator that this 50 megawatt resource, there’s more interest out there beyond that,” said Ryan Matley, product development team lead with Xcel.

The utility wants to launch more subscription programs. Xcel also started to tailor specific projects for bigger clients. In 2018, Xcel got regulatory approval to build a 240 megawatt solar array for EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo. Matley said the project wasn’t driven by climate concerns, but by EVRAZ’s desire for cheap reliable energy.

“As renewable costs have come down, this looks like not just a great sustainability opportunity but a great economic opportunity,” he said.

Ultimately, the future of corporate investments in renewables could be about large-scale production right on site. Boulder-based Black Bear Energy helps commercial real estate owners add large solar arrays to office parks, apartment buildings and industrial sites. As battery technology evolves, CEO Drew Torbin said companies are opting for larger and larger installations.

“If you think about how many buildings don’t have solar and don’t have batteries, the fact that the industry is so new, and that’s a great thing,” said Torbin. “Because we have a long way to go and a lot of benefit we can create.”

Black Bear booked twice as many projects in 2018 compared the year before. As the price of solar continues to drop, Tobin expects 2019 to be its busiest year ever.