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Why the Focus on Electric Vehicles and Batteries is Misplaced

Clean energy is a popular topic and growing feature of today’s new green economy. However, the technologies associated with clean energy generation and carbon capture have received only a fraction of the attention paid to electric vehicles and battery technology.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that clean generation and carbon capture are hard. While the technology to capture CO2 from emissions is established, it has historically been expensive to implement. The same can be said for technologies like nuclear energy generation (which emits no carbon dioxide emissions). This cost feature is changing across the industry. The proposal of large scale joint ventures for carbon capture and clean fuels suggests industry participants see a future in this corner of the energy business.

PetraNova CCS Facility, Houston, Texas
Climeworks Direct Air Capture Project, Zurich Switzerland

While electric vehicles and battery technology are more popular topics in the public sphere, what these technologies fail to address is the fundamental carbon footprint of the energy utilized in their implementation. Building batteries and electric cars still requires steel, aluminum, copper, lithium and most of all an abundance of cheap electricity to drive their productive use. Electricity is still principally derived from fossil fuels in the U.S., an inconvenient fact that many happily ignore – not to say anything about the massive new infrastructure required to support EVs at scale.

Seems easy enough!

It is important to remember that the secondary storage and use of electricity for energy consumption is not a new concept. Electric vehicles are popular because of what they represent: a new-age form of transportation. This is not necessarily because of what they contribute in the way of ultimate energy savings or emissions reductions.

How do we place the appropriate focus back on the technologies that will actually address emissions, or by extension, changes in climate which are presented as the underlying driver of these technology adoptions?

Several companies have initiated efforts to do exactly that, at scale. While receiving little fanfare at the time of their announcement, these ventures are being pursued by players in the unsexy biofuels; midstream and refining sectors. The efforts are poised to meaningfully impact carbon dioxide emissions in ways no electric vehicle manufacturer or battery company could fathom.

Take the Navigator – Valero Joint Venture as an example:

The companies agreed to construct a multi-state pipeline in order to collect and carry CO2 from sources at biofuels and industrial facilites in 5 states and sequester it in rural Illinois. At first, this seems like an innocuous venture, until you realize it stands to offset the typical carbon dioxide emissions of roughly half a million people annually. This is the equivalent of capturing all the CO2 emitted by the entire population of Sacramento or Atlanta.

CCS Proposed System map
Physical sequestration
Valero Ethanol Plants

The novel feature of these projects, namely the physical sequestration of a massive volume of CO2 annually, is something no electric vehicle company can claim. Tesla, with their 3.3 million metric tons of claimed synthetic CO2 offsets in 2019, does not approach the same impact that new CCS projects are likely to have. Despite estimated costs in the $1.5 to $2 billion range, projects of this scale are what’s needed to take the next step in curbing emissions.

It’s worth reevaluating our clean energy priorities in light of the physical realities of EVs and batteries versus the emerging clean energy technologies of tomorrow.

Andrew Schaper is a professional engineer and principal of Schaper Energy Consulting.  His practice focuses on advisory in oil and gas, sustainable energy and carbon strategies.

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