by Danny Broberg, PhD, senior policy analyst at Bipartisan Policy Center and Lucia D. Simonelli, PhD, senior policy fellow at Carbon180
It’s an overcast day in early September, and we’re huddled in a crowd of 150 people from vastly different geographies and backgrounds just outside of Reykjavik, Iceland to witness a historic event — the unveiling of Orca, the world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) plant with capacity to permanently remove 4,000 tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere.
Climeworks, the Swiss company behind Orca, accomplished this landmark achievement by forging strong partnerships with local Icelandic companies, including ON Power (which provides geothermal power to run the facility) and CarbFix (which mineralizes and permanently sequesters the CO2 underground) and by building upon the existing relationships these companies have with stakeholder groups.
Orca provides a unique example of how DAC can successfully transition from concept to real-world implementation when developers consider both the physical environment as well as the social dimensions. As is true for many emerging climate technologies, scaling up DAC will be as much a technological challenge as a sociological one, necessitating community acceptance, support, and even excitement for carbon removal. The lessons learned from Orca today and in the years ahead are important for future DAC deployments around the world.
Iceland’s unique history
Under Iceland’s surface, the European and North American tectonic plates are actively pulling away from one another, making it one of the most geologically active regions on the planet. In March 2021, the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted just one hour southwest of Orca, spewing liquid-hot lava and creating entirely new earth. As that lava cools, new igneous rocks like basalt and obsidian are born. This process has been happening for the last million years, forming the stunning rocky terrain of this island nation.
Harnessing this geologic activity, Iceland has established itself as a world leader in deploying geothermal energy. At present, Iceland’s electric grid is powered 100% by renewable sources, primarily geothermal and hydropower, and serves a population of around 350,000 residents — a little more than half the population of Wyoming. Several decades ago, the Icelandic government worked in tandem with local energy companies to attract industries that could benefit from abundant, low-cost renewable energy. This resulted in a major surge in heavy industry in Iceland, and aluminum overtook fish as the country’s largest export. But this didn’t come without its challenges. Many local groups voiced strong opposition to industrial development, eventually resulting in the creation of a new political party in 2007 known as the “Iceland Movement,” whose main political position was to oppose any additional industrial growth.
While heavy industrial production is quite distinct from DAC, this turbulent history in Iceland serves as a reminder that successful deployment of climate technologies relies on thoughtful and anticipatory community engagement. This context also helps to set the stage for some of the local history and perspectives that Climeworks had to consider as it began its plans for Orca.
Climeworks goes to Iceland
By choosing a site in Hellisheidi, Iceland, Climeworks was able to capitalize on colocation with geothermal energy sources and well-understood technology and geology for mineralization and storage. This reduced the need for new infrastructure and minimized Orca’s land footprint.
In addition, the choice of Hellisheidi provided an opportunity to partner with ON Power and Carbfix, two local companies who have studied the local environmental and societal conditions for years and have built relationships with national and local governments and civil society. Through these established stakeholder relationships, Climeworks was able to engage with a number of ENGOs, youth organizations, labor unions, and more to build awareness and acceptance of Orca through education about the technology and open dialogue about both hopes and concerns.
We decided to have a few conversations with some of these groups ourselves to better understand their perspectives on Orca and DAC in general. These discussions revealed broad acknowledgement that we should view DAC technologies as just one component of the broader climate toolkit, and that deployment should happen in conjunction with other approaches to decarbonization. Moreover, there was a clear desire for continued engagement with local groups and focus on environmental considerations as DAC is scaled up. Two quotes from these conversations are included below.
“We are happy that Climeworks is genuinely interested in the perspective of the younger generation and are honored that they took the initiative to engage with us directly in the weeks preceding the launch of their Orca facility in Hellisheidi, Iceland. We are excited to see the climate benefit that Climeworks and DAC technologies overall can achieve, and hope to continue to be involved in the stakeholder convening processes moving forward.”
— Alma Stefánsdóttir, Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association
“Direct air capture is one small piece of a much larger set of actions needed for addressing climate change. Rethinking how we use energy, for what and how we choose to scale it up in an environmental and socially conscious manner must be a priority for all climate solutions. Carbon removal, including nature based methods, has a role to play in climate action and Climeworks’ Orca project in Iceland is an important step forward. We encourage Climeworks to maintain strong environmental and conservation principles going into the future, always keeping in mind the collective effects of their operations.”
— Auður Anna Magnúsdóttir, Landvernd
Staying on DAC: how we scale
If Climeworks chooses to launch its next DAC facility in Iceland, it can continue to leverage existing relationships to maintain and expand community support. If Climeworks chooses to relocate elsewhere, they can follow a similar template for building partnerships with locally established and trusted companies, alongside genuine stakeholder participation. Ultimately, Orca serves as a pilot for future DAC deployment efforts, but robust public engagement must be calibrated to the needs, perspectives, and histories of the region where each new project is deployed.
It is worthwhile to note that Orca is a major milestone that bumps the total global DAC capacity to just over 10,000 tons per year, but this a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the billions of tons of carbon removal necessary to meet our climate goals. Many more DAC projects will need to be deployed in the coming years, and there is tremendous potential for this deployment to occur here in the US. There is already interest and funding flowing to DAC deployment in places like the Permian basin, where Occidental Petroleum and Carbon Engineering have formed a critical partnership with plans to operate a plant with a 1 million ton per year capacity by 2024.
Climeworks has signaled that it may cross the Atlantic by applying for and receiving a FEED study grant from the Department of Energy in September of last year. Federal policy support to drive this at-scale deployment is growing, with the recent bipartisan infrastructure package including unprecedented support for carbon management infrastructure and new funding for the creation of four regional DAC hubs, at 1 million tons of capture capacity each. Siting these future DAC projects here in the US will present very distinct opportunities and challenges, and the process of stakeholder engagement will reveal varying perspectives and histories. Integrating local considerations into the deployment process is imperative to the success of launching DAC at scale.