Exxon, FuelCell Energy make big CCS bet

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2019

Oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil Corp. has reached a $60 million agreement with FuelCell Energy Inc. to further develop carbon capture technology that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its industrial operations.

The partnership between Exxon and Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy seeks to “optimize” fuel-cell technology for large-scale carbon capture, according to a company press release yesterday. Exxon — the world’s largest oil company — said the partnership would enable greater progress on a solution with the “potential to achieve meaningful reductions” of carbon dioxide emissions.

This investment in carbon capture, a broad suite of technologies that pulls in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, comes as Exxon remains locked in a court case over whether or not the company was aware of climate change as early as the 1970s (Climatewire, Oct. 31).

“ExxonMobil is working to advance carbon capture technologies while reducing costs and enhancing sustainability,” said Vijay Swarup, a vice president for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. in a statement about the two-year, joint agreement.

The company is looking to integrate this particular carbon capture technology into facilities such as refineries and chemical plants, according to the statement, and is exploring options to do a test of the “next-generation fuel cell carbon capture solution” at one of its operating sites. The two companies have been partnering on the technology for three years, according to the statement.

Sarah Nordin, an Exxon spokeswoman, said the specifics of the project would be announced at a later date. She said the world faces a dual challenge that includes meeting both a growing energy demand while reducing environmental impacts that include the risks of climate change.

“Exxon Mobil is committed to doing our part,” Nordin said, adding that Exxon has captured more CO2 than any other company. Since 2000, Exxon has invested more than $9 billion in energy efficiency and low-emission technologies such as carbon capture and next generation biofuels, she said.

FuelCell Energy, a fuel-cell solutions company, said its technology uses carbonate fuel cells to capture and concentrate CO2 streams from large industrial sources.

Jason Few, FuelCell Energy’s president and CEO, said the company is excited to work with Exxon to tackle “one of the biggest challenges that exists today.”

“We have a great opportunity to scale and commercialize our unique carbon capture solution, one that captures about 90% of carbon dioxide from various exhaust streams, while generating additional power, unlike traditional carbon capture technologies, which consume significant power,” Few said.

Jeffrey Bobeck, the director of energy policy engagement at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), said fuel-cell technology is promising because it’s scalable and not as power intensive as more traditional carbon capture, which typically uses something known as amine technology.

“Traditional carbon capture takes a lot of power, so the estimate is if you’re going to apply current carbon capture technology to a plant, it takes about 20% of the power of that plant to run it. That’s not true of fuel-cell technology, in theory,” Bobeck said. “It does not use a lot of power.”

Having scalability could mean applying the technology to a relatively small source of CO2, Bobeck said, and having the ability to scale it up to a very large source with it still working the same way. Bobeck said that if Exxon is indeed considering steps toward a pilot test, then that indicates a significant step closer to commercialization.

A ‘tiny commitment’?

Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while there is a need for investments in developing and later commercializing carbon capture technology, this investment by Exxon is a “drop in the bucket” when compared to how the company is expanding its oil and gas business.

“This investment certainly doesn’t absolve Exxon Mobil of responsibility for the negative climate impacts of its products,” Mulvey said.

Mulvey said for a company as large as Exxon, they need to be investing in this technology at a much faster pace and bigger scale if they are going to count on carbon capture and storage. She said it’s a “relatively tiny commitment” compared to its other investments.

Benjamin Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), which supports conservative environmentalism, said that for the world to effectively curb the effects of climate change, emissions from all energy sources need to be lowered.

“This partnership between Exxon Mobil and FuelCell is focused on measurable results to do just that — and will help lower emissions in the short-term,” said Backer, ACC’s founder. “If we’re being serious about the issue, carbon capture is a vital technology for fighting climate change.”

Ben Ratner, senior director of EDF+Business, said on top of “turbocharging” advancement of carbon capture technology, putting a price and limit on carbon pollution is another mechanism to drive innovation.

“Scaling technologies that effectively capture and sequester or use large amounts of carbon is one key piece of achieving a net zero U.S. economy by 2050,” Ratner said. “Industry has an opportunity to be part of the solution, and a responsibility to support government policies that stimulate innovation and tilt economics toward scalability.”

Richard Heede, a board member at the Climate Accountability Institute, said while no oil and gas company is investing enough research and development funds into renewables and other mitigation efforts in comparison to their investment in new oil and gas reserves, he said this investment by Exxon goes in the right direction.

“The Exxon Mobil and FuelCell agreement is a good next step to evaluate this technology in the broader effort to bring several promising CCS technologies to market for the purpose of aligning the industry’s full supply chain emissions from production, refining and end-use combustion with the global requirement to achieve net-zero emissions by midcentury,” said Heede, who said he could not specifically evaluate FuelCell’s technology.