Climate funding in spending bill could move innovative tech into daily reality

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.
The flagship Plant DAC 4000 by Global Thermostat, a carbon capture, company, in Huntsville, Ala.

Billions in tax credits to make electric vehicles cheaper. Hefty fees for high-polluting gas and oil companies. Funding to speed the production of solar panels and wind turbines. Cash to create the country’s first “green bank.”

The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate on Sunday, would unlock roughly $369 billion to battle climate change – far less than what some lawmakers originally proposed, but it still marks the single largest investment in combating global warming in American history.

The proposed legislation includes tax credits, rule changes and grant dollars to lower carbon emissions and reduce household power bills. It could also have another effect: Making experimental green energy solutions, fantastical ideas that seem stolen from science fiction movies, more appetizing for investors to fund.

Start-ups, researchers and established companies across the country piloting creative solutions will likely get a jolt of energy and cash.

“The U.S. needs it all,” Lindsey Baxter Griffith, federal policy director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental nonprofit, said in a statement. “This bill has a lot of it.”

The Washington Post talked with company leaders and climate change experts about some of the more intriguing solutions being studied and developed. Here are a few getting attention.

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Direct air capture machines

To the naked eye, direct air capture machines look like shipping containers stacked on each other, dominating open swaths of land. They are designed to eliminate carbon: either by sucking it out of the air and storing it deep underground or by converting it into something solid, removing it from the atmosphere permanently.

The technology has caught the attention of the Biden administration, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and companies such as Alphabet and Meta. Proponents say carbon capture technology is a creative and essential way to rapidly slow the Earth’s warming and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Critics say it’s more important to focus on reducing greenhouse gases by changing behaviors in society.

Still, the spending bill offers companies a tax credit of $180 per ton of carbon they capture, up from $50 per ton – a boon for the industry. To qualify, projects would need to remove at least 1,000 tons of carbon, dropped down from a more restrictive 100,000 tons.

Adrian Corless, the chief executive of Carbon Capture, based in Pasadena, Calif., said these changes will help his business scale up. Currently, he said, it costs his company roughly $400 to $500 per ton of carbon captured to operate.

Having a larger tax credit makes his business more attractive to investors and less reliant on philanthropy dollars, he said. Dropping the project size cap to qualify allows his company to partner with states, corporations and other entities on smaller projects across the country.

“It allows us to enter the market and have a business starting in 2023,” he said. “And it allows us to quickly drive our volumes.”

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Carbon capture rail cars

Carbon capture projects might not be limited to containers out in the middle of nowhere if CO2 Rail Company, an Austin, Texas-based company gets enough funding to pilot and scale their technology.

The company proposes putting carbon sucking machines that look like rail cars on existing trains. They would use power generated by the train’s braking system to function, eliminating energy costs which plague other carbon capture solutions.

As the train travels, the rail cars would suck air and store the separated carbon in a reservoir on board. Once the car reaches a rail yard, carbon would be emptied out into a CO2 rail tank or, potentially, injected into a pipeline.

Eric Bachman, the chief technology officer of CO2 Rail Company, said the $180 per ton tax credit in the spending bill helps make the case to investors that his company will be financially viable.

That’s crucial for his company, he said, as it’s in the middle of seeking around $10 million in funding, and trying to develop a prototype of the rail car to be functional by next year.

“This changes everything,” he said.

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Superhot rock energy

For years, scientists have used the heat generated from the Earth’s core to create geothermal energy and convert it into clean sources of power. But the spending bill could spur research and development for extreme versions of the technology, which remain years from fruition.

One particular concept is “Superhot rock energy.” The method, climate scientists say, aims to harness the intense heat generated from the Earth to develop an alternative energy source that could be a limitless source of energy that emits zero greenhouse gases.

It requires drilling miles down into the Earth until temperatures reach around 750 degrees Fahrenheit. After that, water would be pumped down where it would turn into steam and come back up to the earth into a turbine and be processed into energy.

The technology is years away from widespread use because of engineering challenges, said Bruce Hill, the chief geoscientist at the Clean Air Task Force. In parts of the world that get very cold and are away from breaks in the Earth’s plates, companies would need to drill upward of 9 miles deep to reach 750 degrees. The deepest anyone has ever drilled into the earth is almost 7.5 miles, Hill said.

The spending bill’s tax credit for geothermal technologies will spark research and development and help solve these challenges, said Terra Rogers, the Clean Air Task Force’s program director of superhot rock energy.

It signals “to early-stage investors that they will have support as they push superhot rock energy from the research, development, and demonstration stage into commercial viability,” she said.

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Carbon-free building blocks

At present, concrete production accounts for nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But house building could become more climate friendly if companies such as California’s Carbon Built, which makes a carbon-free concrete, scale up.

The most carbon-emitting part of creating concrete is the cement used to make it. One ton of carbon dioxide is emitted for every ton of cement produced, said Cindy McLaughlin, head of products at Carbon Built.

Carbon Built offers concrete makers a product that retrofits onto their facilities allowing them to create concrete blocks primarily out of a less-carbon intensive material called calcium hydroxide. The company cures the concrete blocks using carbon dioxide captured from the air or biomass waste. It locks the CO2 used into the concrete blocks instead of putting it back into the atmosphere.

The process can reduce the carbon used in concrete production by 7o% to 1oo%, McLaughlin said. It costs roughly $1 million to $2 million to retrofit concrete facilities with their technology. The company currently splits the cost with clients, she added.

But concrete makers are often small, mom-and-pop businesses that are reluctant to change and too cash-strapped to invest in retrofitting their facilities, McLaughlin said. The spending bill offers a 30% tax credit to any manufacturing facility that wants to retrofit its operations to be at least 2o% less climate emitting. It also provides grant funding to modernize technology.

The bill “sort of turbo charges the investment opportunity for them,” she said. “There’s a moment when they sort of say: ‘Okay, we can’t not do this, it would be just stupid of us not to.'”

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Green hydrogen

The Act promises an infusion of funding for “green hydrogen,” a zero-emissions hydrogen fuel capable of powering vehicles, jets and homes. The industry has struggled to bring down the cost of this technology, which is produced using wind and solar power and a high tech electrolysis process.

If prices can be made competitive with that of other forms of energy, hydrogen fuels could play a big role in lowering emissions. The hydrogen can also store solar and wind energy, helping to power the grid in off-hours, when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

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Small modular nuclear reactors

The nuclear industry for years has been trying to develop technology it promises will be smaller, nimbler and safer than the massive, decades-old reactors typically associated with nuclear energy.

Small scale, zero-emission nuclear plants could be used to power factories or small communities with the versatility – but not the pollution – of natural gas plants. The Act frees up funding for some of these projects, which would launch in the next few years.

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Fusion energy

The holy grail of energy: Fusion is the process through which two nuclei combine to form an atom – what keeps the sun burning and generating energy.

Scientists have been working for decades to replicate that process in the lab. It would produce unlimited clean, safe renewable energy at a low cost. Scientists remain a long way off from reaching this goal, but the Inflation Reduction Act invests hundreds of millions of dollars in continued research.