A pathway to community-centered DAC

Image: Sam Orellana

by Courtni Holness, policy advisor

Direct air capture (DAC) holds tremendous potential to help us reach zero, then negative emissions — it’s exciting, it’s cutting edge, and it could pull gigatons of carbon straight out of the atmosphere. But as this still-nascent technology continues to evolve, our collective vision of what DAC could be has remained narrow — including how it’s developed and how communities can participate in the process.

Understandably, there’s concern that DAC will be strictly industry-driven, unilateral, or even intrusive to host communities. However, in this early stage, we have a key window to expand the vision for DAC as a technology that cultivates the support of communities. At its core, policy should empower communities to engage with and oversee decisions about the neighborhoods and ecosystems in which they reside. While straightforward in theory, it requires a thoughtful approach to ensure project opportunities, decision-making, and benefits are aligned with community values and priorities.

Local DAC projects could spur new revenue streams for communities, support local ecosystem development, and increase community cohesion. Creating a public engagement process in which residents can share their lived wisdom, and project developers can communicate DAC’s local impact, is central to developing projects with democratic and enthusiastic community support. Policies that enable public participation can drive the development of low-carbon neighborhoods while expressing the unique characteristics of communities in the designs.

To that end, Carbon180 created a few examples showing how DAC can be integrated into the infrastructure of a variety of potential community sites, including recreational spaces, housing, and privately-owned public spaces. Below are conceptual and creative renderings, which are by no means engineering diagrams or exact blueprints for future sites. However, this bold new vision for DAC requires federal policy that supports opportunities for community-centered DAC while providing regulatory structures and programs for community benefits and participation — which we outline below. These diagrams should not dictate the forms that DAC should take in community spaces, but rather encourage communities and developers alike to consider how community involvement and public participation can inform design.

Community recreational spaces

Community recreational spaces are sites where local residents, DAC developers, urban planners, and architects can jointly develop infrastructure that serves multiple purposes. In this example, DAC is powered by solar energy and integrated into the park design and infrastructure, including a placard detailing information about the technology. The community recreation center is also home to native vegetation and canopy cover, an amphitheater, basketball courts, and a playground. The green space in this scenario can aid in remediating local air and water quality and provide shade and cooling, all while offering a space for community gathering.

Housing

This illustration features multi-family affordable housing, green space and canopy cover, community benches, and a greenhouse. DAC is integrated into the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system of each building, performing temperature regulation, ventilation, and removing carbon dioxide that has accumulated in indoor spaces. Utilizing the existing HVAC infrastructure reduces the energy requirement for DAC while also improving indoor air quality and public health. The carbon removed by HVAC systems can be offloaded and utilized directly in the onsite, community-owned greenhouse for locally-grown food or sold on the utilization market.

Privately-owned public spaces

In this last scenario, we’ve imagined DAC integrated into a grocery store. Private spaces that operate as public centers can reflect the interests and values of neighboring residents, while also providing opportunity for public discourse and education. In the example above, co-locating DAC in these spaces can enhance comfortability and confidence with new technologies. In this rendering, DAC is integrated into the infrastructure of the building and powered by rooftop solar energy.

Policy recommendations

DAC projects that embrace robust community participation and leadership at all stages will require diverse stakeholder involvement and multidisciplinary expertise. Through collaborative initiatives among federal agencies and community-based organizations, the federal government can provide the expertise, finance, and safeguards needed to facilitate the development of DAC projects in communities that are interested in hosting them. The following recommendations provide a starting point for policymakers.

Prioritize funding for community-led energy projects, including negative emissions technologies like DAC

The Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, is a template for how we can flip traditional energy funding on its head to rebuild infrastructure. Rather than providing funds to project developers to site infrastructure in communities, LIFT America provides funds and technical assistance directly to communities and municipalities to build the infrastructure that meets their own, self-determined needs. Moreover, the bill requires that contractors pay employees prevailing wages and use domestically manufactured materials. The provisions found in LIFT America may serve as a model for future policy on community engagement, support, and participatory design of negative emissions technologies.

Leverage cross-agency collaboration to elevate community-driven DAC projects

Equitable deployment of DAC at scale will require robust community engagement protocols and practices. While most of the programs for DAC to date have been established within DOE, strong collaboration between various agencies and communities will be needed to fully address the human dimensions of these projects.

  • Direct the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and National Science Foundation (NSF) to outline and report on public safety implications and other local impacts of DAC. A joint report from DOE and EPA would help increase public awareness, acceptance, and participation in community-driven DAC projects — and help develop guidelines and best practices for future deployments.
  • Establish a joint program between DOE, NSF, EPA, and the Department of Labor (DOL) to facilitate local capacity building and improve community-government feedback programs. Growing workforce training and education efforts on climate and carbon removal solutions can help return power to communities, position community members to evaluate infrastructure being considered, and support them in making informed, long-term decisions for future development. Funding should be provided for programs in adult education, vocational training, youth workforce development, and more to support community development — with increased investments at local tribal colleges, minority serving institutions (MSIs), historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and state community colleges. Further, collaborating agencies should create a program that helps interested communities learn about DAC, participate in the design process, provide ongoing feedback, and obtain relevant training and skills in preparation for potential job opportunities.
  • Expand the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant Program to include grants for co-created DAC projects. These block grants from HUD assist state and local governments in neighborhood revitalization, housing rehabilitation, and community and economic development efforts. In consultation with DOE, HUD should create Community Development Block Grants for integrated and co-created zero-carbon energy and carbon removal projects, including DAC. These grants should support a community-driven vision to weave DAC infrastructure into existing initiatives for neighborhood revitalization and improved community spaces.
  • Create federal interagency guidance for the development of Community Benefit Agreements and Project Labor Agreements for DAC projects. As municipalities finance and co-design the development of DAC facilities in their jurisdiction, opportunities arise to design legal agreements establishing how DAC will address site-specific needs. In these contexts, community benefit agreements (CBAs) and project labor agreements (PLAs) may be helpful tools to codify a shared understanding of the financial, employment, and educational benefits to which communities are entitled. While these legal agreements are novel to DAC, they have proven crucial to the development and community support of large-scale wind and solar projects. DOE, HUD, and EPA should jointly issue guidance for the development of these CBAs and make it available for public comment to ensure that input from both community organizations and DAC developers is appropriately reflected.

As the field of DAC expands, thoughtful policy design can support DAC infrastructure that centers community benefits and engagement through the entire life cycle of a project. These recommendations lay the initial groundwork for a future for DAC that is community led and equitable in its distribution of benefits and impacts. DAC may never take the precise forms visualized in this blog. However, the policy recommendations above seek to guide Congress and the administration in equipping communities with the education, finance, regulation, and legal tools to develop DAC in their regions as they deem appropriate.

The illustrations above were created by Sam Orellana, a 2020 Carbon180 intern currently studying sustainable environmental design.

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