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Carbon capture: opportunity for US biofuels?

An ethanol plant in Iowa, US (USDA/Steven Vaughn)
An ethanol plant in Iowa, US (USDA/Steven Vaughn)

Researchers at Stanford and other institutions have found a new way to implement cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

The study runs the numbers on different options for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the US and found opportunities where they say it is not only commercially feasible with existing technology, but profitable.

"We found that between tax credits for CCS and upcoming financial incentives from low-carbon fuel standards, CCS is an untapped financial opportunity for ethanol producers across the U.S.," said Daniel Sanchez, a postdoctoral scholar with the Carnegie Institution for Science and lead author on the paper.

The researchers estimate that 60% of all CO2 emitted annually through the production of ethanol at the country's 216 biofuel plants (about 1% of all CO2 emissions from the US) could be captured at low cost, under $25 (€20.46) per metric ton of CO2.

The study found that if credits for captured CO2 were set at $60 per metric ton, it could incentivise sequestration of 30 million metric tons of CO2 each year, the equivalent of emissions from powering 3.2 million homes for one year. The credits would also pay for the construction of 4,300 miles of pipeline infrastructure needed to transport the CO2 for storage at appropriate sites across the country.

These incentives are in line with new tax credits included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 signed by President Trump in February. The bill amended section 45Q of the tax code so that power plants or CO2-emitting facilities are eligible for tax credits for captured CO2 for up to 12 years.

A cap-and-trade system for transport fuels was also proposed by the researchers.

"This is an opportunity not only for biofuel producers to make profits, but also for CCS technology to be more widely piloted and developed. This is an essential first step if we're going to deploy carbon removal at levels necessary to keep dangerous climate change in check," said Sanchez.

Findings from the research can be found in ‘Near-term deployment of carbon capture and sequestration from biorefineries in the United States’, published April 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An ethanol plant in Iowa, US (USDA/Steven Vaughn)