Ed’s note: Elon Musk, the carbon capture quest and a $100 million prize

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$100 million is a lot of money in anyone’s books. For the companies or individual who are likely to share in this fortune, it could mean the difference between success and failure, and for the world – a chance to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I’m talking, of course, of Elon Musk’s quest to find the best carbon dioxide removal technologies in the world. The winners of the challenge, to be divided into three separate prizes of $50 million, $20 million and $10 million, will be announced on 22 April 2025.

22 April is, of course, Earth Day and 2021 will see the official launch of the challenge which Musk has said is “not a theoretical competition…Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence.”

Conventional carbon capture technologies include removing CO2 from industrial processes and burying it underground. While this technology accounts for the removal of 0.1% of all global emissions, there are those who either believe that the technology is too expensive or too inefficient to be of any real use, or that new technologies need to be developed to remove CO2 from the air.

Musk has called for technology that is carbon negative, not just carbon neutral. According to reports, up to 20 billion metric tons of CO2 need to be removed from the atmosphere – but it’s expensive to do this. Part of Musk’s carbon challenge is for the removal of carbon dioxide as cheaply as possible, in a manner that is scalable and could be utilised for the removal of up to 1 billion tons per annum.

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Interestingly enough, it has been estimated that the size of the carbon capture or removal industry could match that of modern fossil fuel production. Revenue, it is said, could exceed $1.4 trillion by 2050.

There are currently 21 large scale carbon capture, utilisation and storage projects (CCUS) but none of them are currently at the scale that would be needed to truly tackle the issue effectively. The International Energy Agency believes that carbon removal will play a key role in the transition to a net zero energy system.

However, unless it becomes prohibitively expensive to release CO2 into the air, is there sufficient incentive for the development of carbon capture technology?

Because CO2 makes up only 0.04% of the atmosphere – it is extremely expensive to remove it. Or put another way – it is currently cheaper to release CO2 into the environment than capture it. So, it’s likely to be a race [or is that a walk??] between cheaper, more efficient carbon capture technologies, or sufficiently punitive carbon pricing.

What do you think about the efficiency of carbon capture technologies? Do you believe there is sufficient incentive to reduce the cost of these technologies at commercial scale? Is this even a topic which should be of concern to the utility industry or should this be up to the government to regulate and control? What role could the private sector play in decreasing the cost and increasing the use of CCUS technology? Are you planning to enter Elon Musk’s competition?

As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Share your thoughts with us via editorial@smart-energy.com or comment on our Linkedin post.

Wishing you a carbon neutral week!

Until next time,
Claire