The B.C. government, a First Nation in the Interior and a pair of Squamish-based companies are working together on a project that they say could revolutionize the transportation industry by all but eliminating its carbon dioxide emissions.
The province is providing $2 million from its Innovative Clean Energy fund to support the engineering and design work for the project, which aims to be the world’s first large-scale fuel production plant that uses carbon captured directly from the atmosphere.
Squamish-based Huron Clean Energy expects to build the commercial plant on Upper Nicola Band land near Merritt, B.C., and has entered into an equity partnership and land-lease agreement with the First Nation.
The facility – which is currently in the design phase, with construction slated to begin next year at the earliest – will use “direct air capture” technology developed by Carbon Engineering, another Squamish-based company.
When it’s completed – something the project’s backers hope will happen by 2025 – the plant will run on renewable energy from BC Hydro, which it will use to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Other Carbon Engineering projects remove the carbon and store it underground, but the proposed facility in the Interior will instead use more renewable electricity to electrolyze water, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen.
The fuel plant will then recombine the hydrogen and the carbon dioxide to create hydrocarbons that can be used in place of traditional petroleum-based fuels.
According to the Carbon Engineering website, burning the synthetic fuels re-releases the carbon that was captured to make them, but adds no new emissions to the air. Beyond that, because the energy used to create the fuel is renewable, the fuels have an “ultra-low lifecycle carbon intensity.”
“If we can make the fuel carbon neutral, our vehicles, our ships, our planes become carbon neutral,” said Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham at a news conference in Squamish on Thursday.
Oldham said the plant, once completed, would produce about 100 million litres of fuel annually – a substantial amount, but a tiny drop in the bucket compared to global oil consumption, estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to be 97.47 million barrels of oil per day in 2021.
A barrel of oil contains approximately 159 litres, meaning global oil consumption is more than 15 billion litres per day, though only a fraction of that is refined into fuel.
Oldham and the other partners in the project who spoke Thursday said the Upper Nicola plant is the beginning, not the end goal.
“I’m confident that it will be successful,” said Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s minister of energy, mines and low-carbon innovation.
“When it’s successful, it will be something that can be replicated around the world. This is, really, genuinely, globally leading technology.”
The province estimates that the facility will create 620 jobs during the design phase, 4,780 during construction and 340 long-term jobs associated with operating the plant.
Oldham and Huron Clean Energy CEO Michael Hutchison each expressed a desire to see more projects of this type constructed in the coming years, and a confidence that it would happen.
“The plant itself is a first of a kind that anybody in the world that has renewable energy can emulate,” Hutchison said.