Saudi Arabia Wants to Freeze Carbon to Cut Emissions From Power

Scientists in Saudi Arabia are testing a new idea for trying to slow climate change: freezing greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.

A team at a university on the Red Sea coast is trying out a technique for cooling carbon dioxide when fossil fuels are combusted to produce electricity. Once in a solid or ‘dry ice’ form, the pollutant can be stowed underground or used to make chemicals and other products. At least that’s the theory.

As governments step up efforts to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, researchers are developing ways of cutting or absorbing emissions. The problem is that making the technology cheap enough to use on a mass scale is far from easy.

In this case, cryogenic technology developed by Sustainable Energy Solutions, a private company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is being tested at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

The technology has been piloted to capture about 1 ton of carbon dioxide a day. Within two years, the scientists hope to capture up to 25 tons a day from a power plant near the new city of Neom, said William Roberts, a professor at the university. The project will cost around $25 million, he said.

If successful, they plan to create a unit capable of sequestering about 1,000 tons a day. Even that would be a small amount -- Saudi Arabia generated 582 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, or roughly 1.6 million tons a day, according to the Global Carbon Project.

Still, the cryogenic freezing may cost between $35 and $40 a ton on a large scale, around half the price of many other technologies now in use, according to Roberts.

“We think the energy costs are low, the footprint is small and the capex is reasonably small,” said Roberts. “Efficiency gets better as the scale goes up.”

He estimates that a large-scale capture unit will consume around 10% of the power that the plant it’s attached to is producing.

His team eventually hopes to show policy makers that the technology can be rolled out in power plants across the kingdom. Its most economical use may be freezing out emissions from container ships, which can more easily store away dry ice as additional cargo.

“The only way we’ll know if their costs are accurate is to build the pilot, run it, and scrutinize,” said Julio Fridemann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

The world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has been criticized by activists for acting too slowly to reduce its emissions. Its climate policies are rated “critically insufficient” -- the lowest ranking possible -- by Climate Action Tracker.

The country has argued that the world will need oil for decades to come since most renewable energy is still too expensive or inefficient to replace it. But the government has pledged to stop burning oil in its local power plants by 2030 and instead use solar, wind and natural gas for its grid.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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