Like Prometheus handing down fire from the Gods, harnessing the immense power of fossil energy has made possible the modern world we inhabit. But, as in the Greek legend, with that sudden power comes the threat of unacceptable cost for generations to come. In the more prosaic world of our daily lives, carbon emissions are the consequence of the “fire” we have tamed from ancient sunlight, upsetting the finely-tuned balance of carbon reservoirs on our planet.
With some halting progress in carbon reduction programs at the regional and national level notwithstanding, an international climate agreement regulating carbon emissions remains years away from implementation and likely not up to the task at hand in any case.
Even with emissions decreasing in the United States, globally, where it counts, the rate of increase continues. As concentrations of atmospheric CO2 slip past 400 parts per million (ppm) it is increasingly clear that a new energy economy requires not only innovation in renewable energy sources, but innovation in how we manage carbon from fossil fuels, which are not going away anytime soon, whether we like it or not. What might a new “outside the box” way of thinking about and dealing with carbon emissions – and the power plant that produces – look like? What if carbon was no longer a liability, but an asset?
Clean tech and carbon
Founded by serial entrepreneur Lee Stein, Prize Capital’s investment model was initially geared around prize competitions through a partnership with the X-Prize Foundation.
“These X-Prize competitions are fantastic tools for attracting new sources of innovation and generating breakthroughs in very in very complex areas.” says Matt Peak, Vice President, Technology Ventures for Prize Capital.
Not only does the model attract new sources of innovation, it is driven by passionate people hungry to make an impact and starving for early stage capital to make it happen. Perfect for Prize Capital: lean, mean and ready to change the world. So in 2008, Peak was charged with finding the first application of the Prize Capital investment model.
Algae eats carbon – the story begins
“We looked at Algae,” says Peak, “because biofuels were still really talked about at the time, there were initiatives talking about how to scale-up biofuel production in the United States and really algae was the way to do it.”
But, as Peak explains, the landscape algae quickly changed for algae. The Big Boys – Shell, Exxon-Mobile, Chevron – essentially shooed aside the small-time innovators and venture capitalists with their own claim of “an answer” for algae biofuel production. Suddenly algae research seemed less appropriate for the Prize Capital model. But why think of algae just as an end product of transportation fuel? Finding innovators right for Prize Capital required some innovation of its own.
“We looked at the role, the function, that algae could play in an operating system,” says Peak. “Mainly that it absorbs double the weight of carbon for every ton of biomass.”
It was at an algae convention that discussions began with soon-to-be colleagues of Denver-based Tri-State that Peak suspected that Prize Capital had their first project. Biofuel-focused algae research broadened to all aspects of carbon utilization, thinking of carbon emissions as a commodity instead just a waste stream – an asset instead of a liability.
“Why don’t we look at not just biological, algae oriented, but basically open it up to any source of innovation, any source of technology that can capture and then utilize carbon dioxide to produce something. Whether it’s fuel or whether it’s other goods, services, materials, etc.”
Tinkerers in their labs: the carbon utilization landscape
With this epiphany came realization that it still all might be so much hot air. Was the idea of commercial-scale carbon utilization viable? Peak and his team began exploring the research landscape to find out “who is doing what in the space of carbon recycling.”
In 2011 Prize Capital published an industry overview of what Peak calls the “emerging carbon capture and recycling industry.” The report profiles 136 emerging technologies and players within the industry, from corporations to universities and research labs pursuing carbon capture and recycling concepts.
Based on this research Peak realized the field was ripe for what Prize Capital had to offer.
“There’re innovators there,” says Peak. “They’re very nascent, they’re very early stage, they’re in a laboratory, they’re not in the real world, they’re far from being scaled up – but they are there.”
So far so good. When Tri-State agreed there was potential, but suggested that research focusing on carbon recycling needed “somebody to match up for carbon capture.” Recycling the carbon is one thing, but the carbon must be captured and current carbon capture technologies are inefficient and cost-intensive. Typically a power plant needs to scale up 20 to 30 percent simply to power the carbon capture process. Any new carbon recycling technology and commodification process requires a more efficient, cost effective means of capture.
The folks working in the carbon recycling labs needed to hook up with the folks working the carbon capture labs.
Carbon capture innovation
Peak’s team went back out, looking specifically for the most innovative approaches in carbon capture currently being pioneered and tested in labs. From that 90 emerging innovators were identified working on capture; as with the original survey, these are folks were working quietly in their labs, far from the harsh realities of scaled-up, power-hungry world.
By this time, Prize Capital, working closely with Tri-State, was satisfied they’d done their due diligence, ready now to support these emerging innovators. But potential is unrealized until it can be tested and proven – no longer in the lab but under real world conditions. Helping these emerging innovators through a process of “radical advancement” from their current fledgling stages of development, cultivating the best ideas could reach commercial potential was the commitment. So once again it was back to the drawing board for Prize Capital and Tri-State – “mapping things out, white-boarding, sketching things out” – to determine the next step to realize that commitment.
A real world shop
These emergent innovators needed a real world place to setup shop and “plug in their technologies to a real world operating facility and work hand-in-hand with guys that might be their eventual customers,” says Peak. Ideas that look good in the lab may not withstand the crucible of real-world testing and scrutiny.
Getting a “real world experience” requires access to, well, the real world. In the case of of carbon capture and recycling that means access to a commercial scale power plant. Utilities aren’t in the business of providing test facilities for fledgling inventors, engineers and designers typically capitalized for under $1 million; they’re in business to make sure the lights turn on whenever a customer throws the switch – and nobody wants to pay too much for it either.
There are one or two carbon capture test centers in the world, but there exists no end-to-end carbon capture and recycling test center. The construction of the Escalante Integrated EnergyTest Center will mark the first of its kind.
“…Tri-State, to their credit, didn’t hesitate and said ‘hey, we’ll open up our Escalante power station to these innovators. We’ll allocate land adjacent to the facility, basically building out receptacles.”
“Think of it as a housing development,” explains Peak, “where somebody comes in and prepares the land, provides resources for what would come next in terms of CO2 from flu gas flowing into plots, electricity provided, water provided, waste disposal, common areas to meet, privacy fences so that nobody’s looking at or getting ideas as to your proprietary technology.”
The test center will “modular” facility with plots of land available where innovators can come and literally plug their ideas into the messy, somewhat unpredictable world we all inhabit and prove to the world that they’re on to something – or not. But either way it’s something that simply isn’t possible to do in the lab.
Despite the risks and challenges Tri-State might face in building an energy test center, there is mutual benefit as well. Working with these innovators, Tri-State gets first-hand access to the best emerging technologies, sees their potential, characteristics and requirements for commercial-scale use. Again, something not possible in a lab.
In fact, the whole concept appealed to Tri-State so much they are looking beyond just carbon capture and recycling for future testing projects – why not open up the entire power plant to new sources of innovation? The whole conventional power production chain is “ripe for innovation.” Why not provide people working on new methods of working with coal, enhance a steam cycle, mitigate other sources pollution – all the way to improving duct fan sealings – the same access for testing and development.
More ideas flowed, and one more trip back to the drawing board was needed; this time to look into the history and practicality of creating a fully integrated test center supporting supporting emergent carbon technologies from end-to-end. The result was a report entitled An Integrated Energy Test Center: Leveraging Experience to Create a Unique Test Center for Diverse Clean Energy Technologies that Augment Conventional Energy Production.
It’s a mouthful, but the proprietary report reviews the current availability of energy test centers throughout the world and clarifies the need for an integrated carbon test facility focused on clean energy applications to conventional energy production.
It’s a go
The Integrated Energy Test Center “is all a Go,” says Peak. What’s left before construction can begin is a matter of logistics and finalizing their roster of strategic partners ready to work with emerging technologies and help find real solutions.
As much as a physical facility, the process we’ve journeyed through here is, as Peak puts it, “a framework for innovation creating a process whereby regulation, which is at a standstill, almost becomes irrelevant. Because the innovation process kicks off, value is created for all those that are involved and there’s a rush to adopt these technologies. In our vision, that is the outcome.”
Change the world, win a prize (or is it the other way around?)
The prize model isn’t necessarily new. One can go back several centuries when the British Parliament convened the Board of Longitude in 1714, offering a £20,000 prize for anyone that could figure out a way to accurately measure longitude. John Harrison, a little-known clockmaker, eventually devised a chronometer capable of measuring longitude at sea and radically advancing global navigation. But back then Harrison worked largely by himself, at odds with the “big players”of the day (astronomers) and with limited access to test his ideas.
Peak and his team, along with the support from Tri-State, takes the notion of motivating innovations through monetary reward a bit further.
“If you look at it,” says Peak, “the approach we are taking turns the notion of CO2 on its head. It changes carbon dioxide from a liability into an asset. As we know, liabilities are shunned, people don’t want to deal with liabilities, they don’t embrace liabilities. Whereas assets are hoarded. So if we’re able to do that it’s almost as if we could feasibly create a situation in the future where people rush to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.”
Now wouldn’t that be something innovative and new?
It could be the stuff of legend.