In the Central Valley, exploring community-led DAC
by Vanessa Suarez, managing environmental justice advisor
Update: We’re excited to say that this project was selected to receive funding from DOE. We will continue to share updates and insights from this work as it evolves.
This summer, the Department of Energy (DOE) will award its first tranche of funding from the Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs program, investing $1.2 billion in up to 22 projects. The department will fund projects across maturity levels, spanning research to construction. The DAC Hubs program aims to grow and shape the direct air capture sector at large by de-risking emerging technologies — a “learning by doing” approach that will bring down costs and speed deployment at scale. And by delivering tangible benefits to communities along the way, the program has the potential to help build social and political support for a set of technologies that will be an essential piece of addressing climate change.
One of the groups that applied for program funding is known as the Community Alliance for Direct Air Capture (CALDAC) — a coalition of universities, NGOs, and companies with ambitions to create a community-led DAC hub. As part of CALDAC, Carbon180 is going to help figure out what that could look like.
This is a poignant moment for the field and we’re incredibly excited about the chance to participate in such a unique project. Read on for more about this coalition and the role we’ll play in it. (A quick note that the name of this coalition is not final, and could change in the near future.)
What we’ll do…
Led by the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) at the University of California, Berkeley, CALDAC hopes to explore the feasibility of establishing a community-centered and potentially community-owned DAC hub in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley. Together, coalition members will work in partnership with Central Valley communities to look into the technical and social dimensions of such a hub (like which technologies to use and how we might structure a public ownership model). This hub application is one of just a few that is taking a community-focused approach, and we will soon know if it’s been funded when the Energy Department makes awards this summer.
Within the coalition, Carbon180 will specifically focus on building community partnerships and creating educational resources, eventually co-leading the creation of a Community Benefits Plan, should the project advance to that stage. Our work during the first phase of this two year effort will focus on engaging with local community groups, starting with environmental justice (EJ) stakeholders, to determine their interest, vision, and goals for a potential hub in their neighborhood. This could look like partnering with local environmental justice and community-based organizations, creating a carbon removal curriculum tailored to the region, helping to set up a community oversight council, hosting a series of community discussions and workshops to co-create a DAC hub design, and more. And, to support EJ groups with the resources necessary to take on this new work, Carbon180 plans to regrant funds from DOE to various community organizations.
A key piece of our work will be building trust with the people living in the San Joaquin Valley in order to bring local groups into the coalition. Residents, organizations, and Tribes can provide specialized knowledge about their lived experiences and expertise specific to the geography. With local residents and groups as leading members of the coalition, CALDAC would be able to establish a shared vision for a local DAC hub that centers fair decision-making and distribution of community-defined benefits, racial and economic equity, and a just transition for the historically marginalized communities of the Central Valley.
A crucial piece of this work: Should community members decide a DAC hub will not serve their wants and needs, the project will end. The coalition’s goal is to understand how a DAC hub could serve communities, not the other way around. DAC can’t succeed without the buy-in of those living near projects, and Carbon180 is committed to supporting local folks in whatever they decide during this work.
We’ve been working on building an environmentally just carbon removal field since 2020, engaging in robust listening and co-learning sessions with environmental justice organizations about if and how carbon removal projects can serve their communities. We’ve also worked directly with local organizations and advised CDR startups on equitable practices. When it comes to DAC hubs, we’ve spent the last year working closely with DOE to build a program that centers community needs, supports continued innovation, and creates economic and climate benefits. (Read more of our thoughts on program design and how to assess program success.) CALDAC is one of just a few DAC hubs program applications that is taking a community-focused approach, so Carbon180’s carbon removal expertise and commitment to building an equitable field meant we were natural partners to co-lead community engagement for the project.
Our vision for carbon removal, one that we’ll explore with CALDAC, is a future where communities not only “have a seat at the table” but where their priorities, needs, values, and voices are the driving force behind the climate and energy transition and resulting projects.
Beyond gains for innovation, the DAC hubs program has the potential to completely reinvent how communities engage with and benefit from climate technology. Congress made it clear through their siting criteria in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that their vision for the DAC Hubs program is to provide economic revitalization opportunities for communities that have long been underserved. These criteria, while well intentioned, essentially ask historically fossil fuel–dependent communities to host the new carbon removal industry. Community determination of projects will be essential to truly deliver on Congress’s vision for the DAC Hubs program as an opportunity for just transitions.
I grew up and currently live in California’s Central Valley, and I have seen how extractive industries have placed profits over people and under-delivered on promises. Communities deserve better, and concerns that the carbon removal industry could repeat harmful patterns is rooted in people’s lived experiences. Our vision for carbon removal, one that we’ll explore with CALDAC, is a future where communities not only “have a seat at the table” but where their priorities, needs, values, and voices are the driving force behind the climate and energy transition and resulting projects.
The impact of our work on CALDAC can reach far beyond a single hub. CALDAC aims to be community centered, community driven, and potentially community owned. As we engage with CALDAC, our team will continue to develop policy recommendations for the Hubs program at large and our ongoing federal advocacy will be informed by what we learn during this process. As community-first learnings are incorporated into federal policy, projects like this one — that prioritize social and economic benefits, justice, and community leadership — should receive more and more support to become building blocks for a truly equitable and just US DAC industry.
Our learnings can also help inform other policymakers at every level of government and the broader CDR field. Carbon180 will publish learnings from engaging in CALDAC in order to share best practices for community engagement, community benefits plans, DAC feasibility studies, and community ownership models.
Below is a list of current coalition members with various areas of expertise. Should this work be funded, we expect that this list will evolve.
- Blue Planet
- California State University, Bakersfield
- Clean Energy Systems
- Data for Progress
- Electric Power Research Institute
- California State University, Fresno
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
- Mosaic Materials
- Project 2030
- PSE Healthy Energy
- Rondo Energy
- Valley Onward