Why this new plant is capturing carbon dioxide just to let it back out again

There’s a scramble in the US to build the first generation of technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And the first American company with this kind of system, Global Thermostat, just set up shop in Colorado to prove that its CO2-sucking technology actually works.

There’s been hype around Global Thermostat since it got started in 2010 as one of just three high-profile companies in the world developing this technology, called direct air capture (DAC). The idea is to filter CO2 out of the ambient air and then sell that CO2 as a product or sequester it underground to keep it from escaping into the atmosphere where it would heat up the planet. 

But Global Thermostat has been roiled by years of delays and internal drama. Its former CEO, an economics professor at Columbia, had staff grading students’ papers for her at work, Bloomberg reported in 2021. The company made little progress in the decade since its founding, and all the while, its competitors had started to ink major deals to capture CO2 for other companies.

After a leadership shakeup, Global Thermostat has a new game plan

Now, after a leadership shakeup, Global Thermostat has a new game plan — one that has it looking more like a solar panel manufacturer selling its technology for other people to use and less like its competitors, who are building huge DAC projects themselves. But before Global Thermostat can sell anything, it has to be able to show that its technology works — which is what the Colorado plant is supposed to do.

“It’s a technology that’s just being birthed, for lack of a better term,” Global Thermostat CEO Paul Nahi tells The Verge. “So you can’t say well, there’s an established model. But what you can do is look at history. What are the established models for wind, solar?”

Global Thermostat is bucking a trend we’ve seen so far with DAC companies, which is to build big branded facilities. Similar climate tech companies have plans to construct massive direct air capture plants in Texas and Wyoming, for instance. These are huge feats of engineering and political wrangling. And the industry seems to like naming DAC facilities like these after large mammals — Bison, Mammoth, Orca — to show off how big these projects are.

The industry is trying to grow exponentially very quickly. Orca, the first and largest direct air capture and storage plant operating, came online in 2021 with the capacity to draw down 4,000 tons of CO2 a year. That was built by Swiss company Climeworks, another one of the original three DAC pioneers.

The field has gotten more crowded, and Global Thermostat is no longer the only American in the game. Los Angeles-based startup CarbonCapture expects the facility that it’s building in Wyoming to start pulling 10,000 metric tons of CO2 out of the air annually by the end of the next year. It wants to scale up to 5 million tons captured yearly by 2030. Microsoft has deals to purchase carbon removal services from both CarbonCapture’s and Climeworks’ facilities.

In comparison, the demonstration plant Global Thermostat revealed this week in Colorado with the capacity to draw down just 1,000 tons of CO2 annually is kind of puny. That’s roughly equivalent to yearly emissions from a little over 200 gas-guzzling cars.

What’s weirder is that Global Thermostat isn’t doing anything with the CO2 it captures

What’s weirder is that Global Thermostat isn’t doing anything with the CO2 it captures. For now, the Colorado plant is catching and releasing the CO2 — which, of course, does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Moreover, the plant is hooked up to the power grid and burning through electricity to operate, generating more greenhouse gas emissions. DAC technologies are notoriously energy-intensive, although the company isn’t running the machinery continuously — just off and on to test the equipment.

Yet the company doesn’t see this as an oversight. “Sequestering [CO2], that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to prove out the technology and allow us to refine it,” Nahi says. In fact, focusing solely on the machines sucking up the CO2 is kind of the point of its new business model.

The Colorado launch is less about the size or planetary impact of this particular project and more about demonstrating a shift in strategy. Rather than building and operating big DAC facilities itself, Global Thermostat is focused on making devices that other companies want to buy.

It’s a cue taken from the solar industry; manufacturers make panels for someone else to install. Before Nahi became Global Thermostat’s CEO in September, he served as CEO of solar giant Enphase for more than a decade. For DAC, customers could range from a beverage company that needs CO2 for fizzy drinks to an energy company using the technology to make e-fuels, synthetic alternatives to gasoline and jet fuel that can be made from air and water.

“What we do is very specific, we want to build the best direct air capture plant in the world,” Nahi tells The Verge. “We believe if we do that, we’ll be attractive to all the developers, not just one, not just ourselves.”

You could also compare Global Thermostat’s strategy to the early days of Microsoft — creating an operating system that other PC companies would use. Global Thermostat’s competitors, on the other hand, are more like Apple: developing everything from the OS to the hardware running it and keeping it all within a controlled ecosystem.

Climeworks’ direct air capture and storage facility in Hellisheidi, Iceland, on October 11th, 2021.
Image: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images

A unit will cost somewhere “in the seven figures, depending on the application,” according to Global Thermostat. High costs for both the equipment and the energy needed to run them have so far been a prohibiting factor for the nascent DAC industry. It can cost upward of $600 to capture a ton of CO2. Nahi thinks his company can bring that down to $300 in two years, a target he calls “aggressive.” To do that, the company has to make more efficient machines. It might accomplish that by lowering the temperatures it needs to reach to release CO2 from its filters, for example.

Global Thermostat’s technology essentially filters CO2 out of the ambient air, and the DAC “plant” Nahi talks about is more like a module or single unit that can be assembled with other units to scale up or down like legos. With each unit, industrial fans blow air over chemicals that bond with the carbon dioxide. The equipment then applies heat to break those bonds and separate the CO2, which can then be transported and stored away somewhere so that it doesn’t build up in the atmosphere. 

Setting these units up somewhere gets more complex, which is part of the reason why Global Thermostat wants to leave that to other developers. They’ll need a cheap source of electricity, preferably clean energy. And for a large DAC facility, they’ll need a lot of land. To permanently sequester the captured CO2, they need to access underground wells. If those wells aren’t close in proximity to the DAC plant, they might have to build out pipelines to transport that CO2. Along the way, they’re likely to deal with lengthy permitting processes and unhappy neighbors.

It’s a lot to handle. Other DAC companies do tend to find partners to get it all done. Orca’s developer, Climeworks, builds its own DAC technology and then works with another company called Carbfix to store the CO2 in underground rock formations. Still, Climeworks builds and operates its own large DAC facilities and recently brought on a former Tesla director to expand that model around the world. Canadian company Carbon Engineering, another one of the DAC pioneers, is working with oil giant Occidental to build a fleet of giant direct air capture and storage facilities — the first of which will be in Texas.

There is a simpler workaround, but it comes with a caveat. You can sell the CO2 as a product instead of going through the hassle of permanently sequestering it. A factory bottling carbonated beverages might want to buy a single unit for its CO2 supply, for instance. But using DAC tech this way doesn’t really do much to fight climate change. As soon as someone pops that bottle open, the CO2 escapes back into the atmosphere. And that’s what makes it so important to consider what happens to the CO2 once it’s been captured. The only way to clean up a meaningful chunk of greenhouse gas pollution using DAC is to permanently store the carbon dioxide.

“That’s a really big piece for scaling, you know, what you do with that carbon dioxide?” says Sara Nawaz, director of research at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. “Because of all these other questions, I’m just really not sure what comes next or how excited to be about it.”

Global Thermostat’s potential customers, who would deploy the technologies for their own uses, include fossil fuel companies, which is another factor that gives Nawaz pause.

There’s skepticism about DAC from some environmental groups worried that it could derail action on climate change. Polluters could potentially use the technology to continue with business as usual — investing in DAC rather than turning to renewable energy. And taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is no substitute for preventing the pollution in the first place, which can only be done by ditching fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, Global Thermostat has partnered with ExxonMobil to develop its technology since 2019, although Nahi won’t disclose how much funding his company has received from Exxon. The fossil fuel giant touts this partnership in social media videos about climate change — the kind of content that environmental advocates have called out as greenwashing. And in January, Global Thermostat announced another partnership with Japanese gas utility Tokyo Gas.

“I don’t think anybody believes that all of a sudden, you know, the world is going to stop using oil and gas. I would love it if they did, but it’s just not feasible,” Nahi tells The Verge.

Beyond the company’s seemingly cozy relationships with oil and gas, Global Thermostat has more work to do to repair its reputation. Allegations of mismanagement under its former CEO came to light in a 2021 investigation by Bloomberg. A would-be partnership with a Coca-Cola bottler fell through, according to that report. And smaller prototypes the company built in Alabama and Oklahoma shuttered, with one contractor suing Global Thermostat for unpaid bills and damages.

“[The company] had issues. They brought me on to say, ‘Okay, we’re at a position right now where the technology is good, not perfect, but good. And we’re ready to sort of now take the company into commercialization,’” Nahi says.

The fanfare surrounding the launch of Global Thermostat’s new Colorado headquarters and demonstration project is more evidence of how much the US is betting on the emerging technology to meet its climate goals

It’s got some big tailwinds working in its favor now in the US. The Biden administration provided a boost for carbon removal technologies with the Inflation Reduction Act, which more than tripled tax credits for direct air capture and storage projects. And the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed into law in 2021 includes $12 billion for capturing and storing carbon dioxide. With funding from the DOE, engineering and construction company Black & Veatch is working with Global Thermostat to design a DAC facility with an annual capacity of 100,000 tons.

The fanfare surrounding the launch of Global Thermostat’s new Colorado headquarters and demonstration project is more evidence of how much the US is betting on the emerging technology to meet its climate goals. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended Global Thermostat’s launch event on Tuesday alongside Colorado lawmakers and Trisha Miller, a senior director in the White House Climate Policy Office.

“We know that to reach our climate goals and protect the future of our planet, we must use every tool available, and Direct Air Capture is an important strategy that will help ensure we achieve this,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis said in a statement.

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