With Carbon Unbound just around the corner, we caught up with CarbonCapture Inc. CEO Adrian Corless to talk about the state of the direct air capture industry and how the community within it is growing and interacting more and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How has the Direct Air Capture industry changed in the last few years. With its rapid growth is it now becoming a bonafide industry and something that will be crucial for emission reductions?
I’ve been in direct air capture (DAC) for the better part of 10 years or so and then we had the original wave of companies like Carbon Engineering, Climeworks, and Global Thermostat. At that point there were some really smart people like Bill Gates and the Bronfman’s, who understood that there was this imperative and that the math just said, you were going to have to do this.
But there was no general public understanding, certainly no political will to move the needle. There was nothing to actually drive investment.
In the last three to four years, led by good science and the series of reports out of the IPCC, there has been consistent reinforcing of the fact that direct air capture had to be considered as part of a net zero solution. It has started to build some public acceptance, because 10 years ago it was seen in a super skeptical light.
Three years ago, people understood that it was going to be this massive opportunity in 2050. But there was still no real understanding of what was the on-ramp, how do you get started? Of course, it’s going to be massive, it’s going to be as big as the energy industry is today. [The latter] has been part of putting carbon into the atmosphere, so you need something roughly the same size to remove it. But still, there was no clarity.
How did the Inflation Reduction Act and other government initiatives from the last couple of years change the industry?
In 2021 we were able to raise 35 million [in a Series A round] and capitalize the company and dive into product development. Then 2022 rolled around and that changed everything.
A voluntary market was emerging, the 45Q was there in an ok form, and LCFS was looking good. There were the underpinnings of financial support with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, setting up the three and a half billion for the DAC hubs. Then six months later, finally, the IRA really sent out that clear signal with the $180 a ton [credit]. In parallel to that you had the Frontier fund and you had the NextGen group.
You also had multiple billions of dollars coming out of the private sector to support the early stages of this industry. I was at a Credit Suisse investor event recently, the third one which I’ve attended. The first one had about 200 people in San Diego. Last September there were 400. This time there were 800 and at least half of those people represent capital that’s trying to figure out how this market plays out.
Are there still big risks the industry faces at this point?
There are still risks like the debt ceiling. What was the very first thing on the table? It was a repeal of almost all parts of the IRA, in order to get the debt ceiling raised.[But] what was interesting, there was an immediate backlash coming out of the Republican Party. They pulled out the 45Q and left it untouched. So from that perspective, it really shows how bipartisan the support is for carbon removal and DAC and other aspects of carbon capture. That gives me a fair bit of confidence to say that I don’t think this is going to be a political pawn.
Some people really don’t like the fact that Oxy is using this as a vehicle to decarbonize their existing business. It’s important that there are both „flavors“ of DAC out there. The energy companies are willing to deploy a lot of capital and they also have a lot of political influence in this. You may disagree with that, but you have to recognize how important it is that this isn’t an activity entirely supported by one political party in the U.S.
In terms of where the industry is, do you think it will be able to stand on its own two feet with carbon removal as a service? Is it something you have in your modeling for the business?
Yes, it is. The nice thing about direct air capture and with the idea of carbon removal as a service, is that we are not capturing any particular industry’s emissions. So, for now we can go and seek out buyers from profitable companies who probably have smaller footprints and who can afford to decarbonize using an engineered carbon removal approach.
The fact that we have the 45Q for whatever we can deploy up to 2032 and then another 12 years, gives us a couple decades, where we’re going to be able to go and take that revenue and put it into deploying more hardware. And maybe it’ll get extended, but assuming it doesn’t, we have a window over the next nine years, to get enough hardware out there to scale up and drive costs down.
In 2033 we can be selling tens of millions of tons of carbon removal credits, but still not billions. So we’re still talking about the customers who can pay $200 to $250 a ton at that point.
To me everybody’s mission over the next decade is getting the industry far enough along, that it can fit in what I call a “mid-level” of decarbonization. A place where it’s at the internal price of carbon that a lot of profitable companies are putting out there as part of their ESG plans.
We’ve talked to a lot of our customers and I think that if we can be in that $200 to $250 per ton range, by the end of this decade or early, early to mid 2030s, there will be the ability to continue to accelerate and grow the business independent of additional subsidies.
Yes, Wyoming and North Dakota have primacy and we’ve had a presence in Wyoming, and we see their willingness to be first [in carbon management].
They are ultimately looking at an energy transition, which is kind of ugly in terms of the impact of the loss of coal, and coal power generation in that state and a declining oil and gas industry in general.
The idea of carbon management wasn’t new and the reason they got primacy is because they applied for this a long time ago, long before DAC. It was originally all about trying to protect their energy industry and being able to capture emissions from electricity generation.
Over time, I think it became apparent that’s probably not the right answer and the right use, but because of the steps they took, they’re really well positioned with primacy.
First of all there was a political openness to it. Second is that they’ve got good geology for sequestration. In this southwest corner of Wyoming that we’re in, there are around 30 gigatons of pore space according to DOE reports.
As this opportunity was developing in the background, we met up with Frontier Carbon Solutions, who were standing up a carbon management business in Wyoming. It was in the same area but originally focused on point source emissions.
They were working on the infrastructure for the Class VI wells, so we’ve been able to partner up with them as an addition to their own business and that partnership was really key for why we ended up in Wyoming as well. It certainly underpins our ability to have a starting point and a place to grow the business.
Are you looking at potentially having another project there?
When we announced Project Bison, we said there’s ample resources, infrastructure, etc, to grow this to 5 million tons a year. But even then, there’s nothing that would keep it from getting larger. But having said that we also want to develop some diversified projects in different regions as well.
In our business model we have Project Bison leading the way and being the biggest, but by the end of this decade a couple of other projects underway as well. If you fast forward two or three years, there will be other hubs available out there like the Bayou Bend project, developed for a variety of emitters and using common assets for sequestration. I think there’ll be opportunities that emerge that will be similar to what we’re doing in Project Bison for us.
You’re headed to Carbon Unbound soon, how valuable do you see events like it becoming for the direct air capture industry?
For us it’s incredibly valuable, whether it’s on partnerships, or capital, or just having a platform to talk about what we’re doing from a public education point of view. I’m really glad that this is happening.
And clearly there’s interest here. You’ve got companies like ours as technology providers, you’ve got capital represented. You’ve also got buyers and government folks that are trying to just understand what’s going to be the landscape around regulation and legislation.
For us the richness of the conversations that are starting to happen [are valuable], because doing a project is so multidimensional, right?
What we’re doing is the simplest form of this business. We’re doing carbon capture with a partner that’s going to sequester it. We’re creating a carbon removal unit, so you’ve got to work with the energy developers, the landowners, the pore space. You start to realize the complexity of what you have to do to put together the simplest form of this approach, so the fact that this broader audience is starting to engage is really great.