How to tell Great Cleantech from “Green Fraud”

I like to read up on success stories of cleantech projects. They inspire. They make us believe in our planet’s future. We learn a workable path to follow on how to fund projects, that meet the lofty goals of reversing climate heating, reducing carbon emissions. The best examples help us understand what success looks like. So how to tell great it’s cleantech?

But it can be controversial. Occasionally I find a piece that makes me wonder, who’s riding this green train with ulterior motives and who’s got genuine, winning solutions? Take this recent blog from Gabriel Levy and its intro below:

Carbon dioxide removal sucks. There are better ways to tackle global warming

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out. A study published last month has confirmed.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations. It then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). But it emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed, the article shows.

Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for each tonne it recovers. Mostly it’s from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.

If DAC was instead powered by renewable electricity – as its supporters claim – it would wolf down other natural resources. And things get worse at large scale……..

So how can you tell great Cleantech schemes from Green Fraud?

Gabriel Levy, you’re maybe onto something there. But is stretching the results a crime? Probably not, unless they clearly misrepresent their technology’s potential in an investment prospectus. So am I reading that this is where Levy’s directs his sharpest scepticism? Is it just the dubious justifications of wacky carbon sequestration schemes? Do we just label it “Greenwashing” or is it as bad as “Green Fraud”? The distinction may only extend to whether it’s deliberately or inadvertantly “separating fools from their money“.

In fact here, just up the road to Whistler from Vancouver, there is a pilot project for one of these well publicised DACs. Government funds it to the tune of tens of millions. A picture in the above Levy article shows its doppelgangers in Hinwil, Switzerland. Will they ever go mainstream and be a commercial success?

If so, I should hire their marketing person who convinced government they can lead the world in CDR and it’s worthy of their funds. They got their tens of millions. I scratched my head at their audacity, but Levy takes issue.

Does Hydragas’ Project Pass the Smell Test?

I must therefore self-examine our project credentials. I have no wish to be a me-too “green fraud scheme” operator. But how do I tell that it classifies as great cleantech? Firstly, I follow that altogether different philosophy that Levy mentions; “Climate Advisers says that natural solutions are the most readily available”. There is a start to validate our thinking.

Here’s the case in point. On invitation from their government, I started studying the case of Lake Kivu in Africa, over a decade ago. The government just wanted some natural gas production, as the country had firewood as a fuel source and not much else. Gas had been discovered in 1935 in Lake Kivu, in research into why the lake was anoxic at depth.

We needed a Breakthrough Innovation

But recovering dissolved gas defied any conventional extraction method. A Belgian company created a novel, but crudely effective siphon version in 1965. Despite its simplicity, nobody had deployed any substantial technology advance in subsequent commercial developments. They are grossly inefficient, wasting the majority of the limited resource. But worse than that, they interfere with and slowly destroy the lake’s stability structure that keeps the gas sealed in. They therefore exacerbate a great danger, for which this lake already has a serious potential.

That was the technology space that I had studied; to develop and deploy a different concept of process innovation. Testing in situ showed this innovation to be capable of both high efficiency and ensuring long-term stability. It’s one that triples the gas recovery and quadruples output, while continuing to ensure safety.

Years into developing the concept and design for the project, I see the lake very differently. It may now be better defined as the exceptional, giant, natural CCS. But it also has great potential to develop into a gigantic CCUS. However, that can only be that with well conceived human intervention.

The Size of the Prize and the Problem

The lake’s success as a CCS system is because it can store more than 2 Gt of carbon in its 500 m deep water. Maybe it’s as much as 6 Gt, depending on the CH4:CO2 conversion ratio one uses. Indeed its downfall potential comes about because of this success. If it keeps up the current rate of carbon capture, this great big lake will catastrophically erupt before the century is out. It’s one of Africa’s Great Lakes and the second deepest, but with unique clean energy potential. Its massive threat can be turned into a great asset.

This limnic erution releases a millennium’s worth of trapped CCS in a day. (This Youtube video is a bit over the top, but mentions Kivu right at the end). It could spike global CO2 like no other single event, releasing multiple gigatons in just one day. While a raft of PhDs have been earned, studying this lake’s many scientific phenomena, a few of us are extending that by looking at CCUS as a potential solution. As happens all too often with the potential for riches, so are a few smash-and-grab opportunists.

Identifying who the good guys are, or aren’t

But this human intervention is potentially very scary, if it’s not done right. In simplistic terms extracting gas involves taking out the 20% of dissolved methane from the world’s largest bio-digester and re-injecting the 80% that’s CO2. Doing it right is possible. But doing it crudely and wrong may be the way-too-easy route; just copying what the Belgians did in 1965, but make it huge. This has started and we’re starting to see the consequences.

Their approach terrifies me because its like lighting a slow-burning fuse that we can never extinguish after it’s been burning for a few years. The lakes own defences are breaking down, soon to a state no longer able to self-repair. These defences are the lake’s density layers, that probably took centuries to form. That’s like the ozone layer that was compromised by CFCs, except we can’t stop the breakdown by giving up CFCs. We need to stop using the wrong methods.

If it’s going this far wrong, who can fix it?

Exactly how complicated is Lake Kivu? These are deep and complex questions in a unique and very complex environment. I co-wrote a paper to detail the issues with Dr Finn Hirslund, an engineer and scientist who’s made it his life’s work. The two of us were part of an International Expert Group of advisers that studied the problem in a three-year exercise.

We’ve both spent the proverbial 10,000 hours on the problem. He has worked principally on understand the trends and mechanisms of the natural transitions of the lake through its life-cycle. I work on trying to perfect gas extraction in a way that preserves, rather than destroying, the principal safety features that have evolved in the lake over millennia. We participated in a team of specialised academics from Europe for four years to develop and publish the rules of the game. Agreement was achieved, but not without its detractors. Yet there are still more mysteries to unravel, let alone agree on. It’s heavy-going material, but the paper lays out the detail of how and why we do what we do. This lake is no quick study.

It’s all in the definitions

As a CCUS Lake Kivu will be a natural phenomenon that can power up at least one country with useful, cheaper energy. And what of the bonus of recapturing the CO2 from methane combustion, back into the lake? Can we make it a circular energy system? Even better, can the methanogens present be used to close the cycle to convert CO2 back into methane? I believe we can.

On contemplating the down-side, what if one’s ambition to enhance gas extraction would trigger the feared eruption? Millions of people live by the lake and they are under a slowly worsening existential threat. In a limnic eruption, the lake’s 500 cubic km of water will release over 500 cubic km of dense, asphyxiating and toxic gas. If triggered, this can happen in a day-long, cataclysmic event. That is a terrifying possibiity.

This is where we question how climate funders get duped into pouring good money into flaky schemes. The engineering math, that should always be used to invalidate any impractical climate fixes, is too often being glossed over. Following the herd into these schemes can be just as crazy as Levy implies. Ironically fads seem to sell better than real solutions, all too often.

Is it in the Data, how to Tell Great Cleantech?

But I’m an engineer, and I’ve had a long run in oil & gas and energy projects. So I get that the energy balances show it, and that the feasibility of some of CDR and CCUS projects, let alone DAC, just don’t work. They may be the loony-tunes schemes of the climate change genre, but they remain oddly fashionable. They get the funds. Do they know how to tell great cleantech?

For example, this scheme in Africa does not require 7,000 TWh to capture and prevent the eruption of 2 Gt of carbon. In fact, in achieving that it can also generate 265 TWh of electricity from methane that we can harvest. Better than that, in converting the lake from a CCS to a natural CCUS, it brings the danger of eruption back from the brink. The risk level comes down by orders of magnitude. As for the energy, it costs less than half as much as the diesel-driven power it replaces. That’s before we account any value for the gigatons of carbon emissions we avert. We think this is how to tell great cleantech from impostors.

So how best do we tell if it’s great cleantech? Does it come down to categories?

Sounds good? Have you ever tried to get funding for a “natural solution”, especially one that doesn’t categorise? i.e. Something with a three-letter anagram like CCU or DAC. Fundability is first assessed by how familiar your innovation is to the assessor. (Now that’s both an oxymoron and an irony for defining cleantech innovation). It’s a world where we still categorise solar voltaics and wind power as innovative, a quarter century on.

Don’t dare to come up with something completely new, in telling investors how to tell great cleantech. Feedback is likely to be, “If it’s so innovative, how come I haven’t heard of it before?” Or try this, from a financial institution, “We don’t have a category for that one. Sorry”. Or better yet, “You did well on 14 of 15 items on our checklist, but you’ll have to build it in Canada to qualify on job creation. We need jobs locally”. Ah, the tyranny of the clerks! There’s only one shared atmosphere to benefit from the gigatons of carbon reduction. Wherever it’s achieved, it works just the same for us in Canada.

So I wrote another blog last year, on how to re-categorise the project into something with an acceptable anagram. Does that blog show how to tell it’s great Cleantech? No. It just asks how to find an appropriate niche out of a bowl of cleantech alphabet soup. It contains our climate funding game’s best known set of three-letter abbreviations. Pick one.

And then there was COVID-19

And then our life got even more complicated, a state of existence called “COVIDus Interruptus”. A March 2020 closing of a fund raising is still to be re-scheduled. But we will persist because for us and for millions of residents of this rift valley it matters!