The World’s First Negative Emissions Plant Is Up and Running in Iceland

Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland, the world's first negative emissions plant

A climate startup has partnered with Reykjavik Energy to develop the world’s first ‘negative emission’ power plant, and it’s already online.

Author Tristan Rayner, 10.26.17

A climate startup has partnered with Reykjavik Energy to develop the world’s first ‘negative emission’ power plant, and it’s already online.

The power station in Iceland is Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, the third-largest of its kind in the world, with the capacity for 303 megawatts of electricity and 133 megawatts of hot water.

It is already a very low carbon emitter, only venting some volcanic gasses as part of the process. But Iceland is targeting zero emissions for its power generation, and is working on a number of technologies to do this.

One has been carbon storage, where CarbFix2 – led by Reykjavik Energyand funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme – has partnered with academics to succesfully store captured carbon dioxide (CO2) in basalt rock.

That technology led to a partnership with Climeworks, a Swiss company which already successfully proved their direct-air-capture technology via another world-first plant established near Zurich – which literally sucks CO2 out of the air.

This kind of technology takes CO2 directly from ambient air, meaning it doesn’t need to be captured at the source, although efficiencies are higher.

Cynics point out that trees do a similar job, with far fewer technology constraints. But this method is instantaneous, and doesn’t require water or space. And it’s meant to be complimentary, where growing trees isn’t feasible, such as in a desert.

The Pilot Project in Hellisheidi

Direct-air-capture technologies can also be used in innovative ways when it comes to storing the carbon. And in the case of this pilot plant at Hellisheidi in Iceland, the captured CO2 is stored deep underground. To do this, waste-heat is used from the geothermal plant to bind CO2 with water.

Stored in basalt rock, it rapidly forms mineral compounds, imitating natural processes in a much swifter reaction that remains stable for millions of years. Other parts of the world where basalt forms may also offer a similar long-term storage option.

The technology costs are high enough to be considered a real moon-shot, however, and there are many practical constraints, many of them around commercialisation. Jan Wurzbacher, Climeworks’s director, told Quartz that the company hopes to bring costs down to about 100 USD per metric tonne of carbon dioxide, without releasing details on current costs. Establishing trees is estimated to cost around 25 USD per tonne of carbon.

And this current pilot setup in Iceland is currently only able to capture 50 tonnes of CO2 per year. According to IEA data, humans are releasing around 33 gigatons of CO2 into the air each year, or 33 billion tonnes. So on the global scale, it only offsets one single US household.

Even at that cost level, the technology can only scale well with billions of dollars of investment. But it is hoped that rapid efficiency improvement can take place, driving costs dramatically lower in the direct-air-capture space. And developing an artificial carbon cycle that can scale to create more carbon negative power generation and plants could become a major industry, and one that even plays a role in the fight against climate change.


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