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What is Carbon Negative Power? And How It Will Change the Energy Industry

What if using energy could actually reduce your carbon footprint? That's the question companies like Chevron and Microsoft are asking. 

Along with Schlumberger New Energy and Clean Energy Systems, the two companies have announced plans for a bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) project that aims to produce carbon negative power. The BECCS facility will convert agricultural waste biomass, such as almond trees, into fuel. More than 99% of the carbon from this process will then be captured for permanent storage underground. By using biomass that consumes carbon dioxide during its lifecycle to produce power and then storing the produced carbon dioxide, the process results in a net negative carbon emissions. 

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Projects like these are paving the way for both energy companies and commercial customers to achieve their carbon reduction goals. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at carbon negative power and its impact on the energy industry and consumer choice. 

What is carbon negative power?

The term "carbon negative power" refers to achieving net negative carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This can be done by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or by sequestering more carbon dioxide than is emitted. Power is carbon negative when it removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than is released from the generation of energy. 

That’s different from renewable power sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric. These energy sources contribute little to no extra CO2 to the atmosphere, so they are considered “carbon neutral”. In some cases, carbon sequestration technologies are used to achieve the same effect by capturing and storing any CO2 that is produced during power generation. 

While carbon neutral power results in a net overall zero emissions, carbon negative power takes things a step further by actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or sequestering more CO2 than is released. 

If this seems like a tall order, that’s because it is. The energy industry is the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions including CO2, so naturally reducing carbon emissions from power generation is an important priority in the fight against global warming.

Carbon negative power can take many forms, but the most common is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) — the technology used by Chevron and Microsoft’s latest project. This process uses organic materials such as scrap wood, crops and agricultural waste, and manure which are burned as fuel to produce electricity or heat. These so-called "biomass fuels" are naturally lower-emissions than fossil fuels, though some carbon is still emitted. By combining biomass with technology that captures and stores the emissions produced from the process of converting the crops to fuel, BECCS could lead to overall net negative CO2 emissions. Today, scientists are also exploring ways that growing biofuel crops like switchgrass could increase the amount of carbon sequestered, or trapped, in the soil. 

Why are companies interested in carbon negative power?

Organizations are facing tremendous pressure to address climate change. Many companies, especially those with a global presence, have been working to aggressively reduce their carbon footprint and, in the process, a growing number are transitioning to “green” or renewable forms of energy. These companies have found that using clean energy not only helps them address climate change, but also meet the demands of their customers and investors.

Carbon negative power is particularly valuable for companies that have established net zero emissions targets. To reach net zero, companies have two choices: either find ways to reduce the carbon intensity of their operations, or offset any CO2 emissions they produce. 

This is where carbon negative power comes in. Carbon negative power removes more carbon than it emits; thus, carbon negative power effectively generates offsets which could be used by utilities or their customers to meet their net zero targets. 

For instance, the plant being developed by Chevron and Microsoft is expected to remove about 300,000 tons of CO2 annually. That’s the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from 65,000 homes, or 1,300 commercial trucks. This is why carbon negative power is so valuable. 

Taking action

As concerns about climate change grow, corporations of all sizes are taking action to fight climate change. Perhaps hoping to elevate and differentiate themselves, some companies are now pledging to go carbon negative. 

One of the largest companies to announce plans to become carbon negative is Microsoft. The tech giant says it will reach net negative emissions by 2030, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove all the carbon it has emitted, either directly or by electrical consumption, since it was founded in 1975. While Microsoft will not include the BECCS facility in its accounting, the computer giant is using carbon capture technology to help achieve negative emissions.

IKEA is also promising to be carbon negative by 2030. So far, IKEA has focused on switching to 100% renewable energy sources, but it’s easy to imagine a future where the retailer adopts carbon negative power. 

Meanwhile, utilities are also under pressure to green up their operations. A growing number of governments have established targets to bring carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 in line with the Paris agreement. In the US, for, example, the Biden administration has promised to make the energy sector carbon-free by 2035. Policy changes, along with increased demand from commercial customers looking to reduce their carbon footprint, will drive significant investment in negative emissions technologies. 

Today, there are only five commercial BECCS facilities in action — but investments from companies like Microsoft and Chevron will help to expand the availability of carbon negative power while enabling energy providers to prepare for the transition to a low carbon economy.  

Next, discover the benefits of carbon management

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