Calpine’s Los Medanos Energy Center at dusk. Carbon dioxide is transferred from this plant to Blue Planet System’s Global Innovation Center, where it is turned into mineralized carbon dioxide, effectively recycling greenhouse gases into material that can be used to build city infrastructure. Credit: Calpine Corp.
Since the creation of competitive electricity markets over 20 years ago, competitive power suppliers have driven progress for energy customers and the environment. This Competitive Power Spotlight explores Calpine Corporation’s progress in a first-of-its-kind collaboration designed to solve some of the energy industry’s biggest challenges. Calpine demonstrates that private investment in competitive power markets can be one of the best tools to foster energy innovation.
Carbon capture is widely recognized as a critical element of the global strategy to combat climate change. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s foremost authority on the topic, makes clear in its most recent assessment that keeping warming even close to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target will require vast deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Virtually every pathway the group has identified relies on CCS or CCUS (carbon capture utilization and storage) to meet humanity’s targets.
But deploying this technology on the scale needed will require vast investments. The IPCC report notes that “Currently, global rates of CCS deployment are far below those in modelled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. Enabling conditions such as policy instruments, greater public support, and technological innovation could reduce these barriers (IPCC Summary for Policymakers, p. 37)”
EPSA member company Calpine is making just that kind of investment and showing how competitive markets can be testing grounds for some of the world’s most important technologies.
Calpine is America’s largest generator of electricity from natural gas and geothermal resources and maintains commercial, industrial, and residential retail operations in key competitive power markets. Since 1984, Calpine has grown steadily and now owns 76 generation facilities across 22 states that produce enough power for nearly 20 million homes. The company operates the world’s largest geothermal facility—California’s single largest source of reliable renewable power.
A Groundbreaking Project
Calpine and its partner Blue Planet Systems commenced operations in September at a first-of-its-kind collaboration in California, where operators are transforming power plant emissions into mineralized carbon dioxide building materials—effectively turning emissions into synthetic limestone.
As part of the project, carbon dioxide from Los Medanos Energy Center (LMEC), Calpine’s 580 megawatt natural-gas power plant, is fed through a pipeline to Blue Planet’s adjacent Global Innovation Center, where the company turns the greenhouse gas into materials that can be used in common structural concrete applications like buildings and roads.
This production could one day provide materials for projects across the Bay Area and Silicon Valley that currently require vast amounts of carbon-producing building materials.
A Vital Technology for a State Struggling with Extreme Heat
California came dangerously close to rolling blackouts this summer and gas generation provided more than 60 percent of the state’s power at one point when wind and solar were not available due to weather conditions, even as demand skyrocketed.
It was a vivid illustration of just how important it will be to keep plants like Los Medanos online to provide dispatchable power to meet demand, even as the state tries to meet its ambitious net-zero goals.
It is a situation that grid operators and state leaders all over the country are grappling with as intermittent renewable resources like wind and solar account for a growing percentage of electricity generation but remain dependent on weather conditions. That means finding a way to keep dispatchable plants online and ensure that their emissions are captured. CCUS projects like this could be the way to keep the state’s grid both clean and reliable for decades to come.
A study from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that pairing natural gas plants with CCUS technology could reduce the price tag for decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid by 2035 by as much as $300 billion.
Cleaning Emissions from Two Sectors for the Price of One
This project represents a new way to not only store carbon emissions safely, cheaply, and permanently, but also create material for carbon-negative building projects. That offers double the benefits of many traditional carbon storage technologies—not only keeping emissions from ever reaching the atmosphere, but also replacing energy intensive building materials.
Building materials and construction currently accounts for 13 percent of global emissions.
After successfully completing its demonstration phase, Calpine and Blue Planet are now working to build a commercial scale plant in Pittsburg, Cal. capable of capturing and sequestering 175,000 tonnes of CO2 annually in nearly 500,000 tons of synthetic limestone – the amount needed to make approximately 250,000 cubic yards of concrete.
“This important milestone shows that we have a readily available tool to decarbonize one of the most common sources of industrial CO2,” said Dr. Brent R. Constantz, Blue Planet’s Founder, CEO and Chief Scientist. “With Calpine’s early investment and stalwart support, our site in Pittsburg is fast-becoming the centerpiece for this promising near-term solution to meet state, national, and global carbon reduction targets across industries.”
The global market for this kind of construction material is vast. If all concrete aggregates were made using this technology, it could store 24 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, almost half of total man-made CO2 emissions.
Fostering Innovation Through Competition
This project is also a remarkable testament to the effectiveness of competitive markets. Because Calpine operates in California’s competitive market, investors are providing the funds to build this project, not ratepayers, and households are not on the hook for the risks of cost overruns with a new technology.
California’s competitive market, CAISO, provides incentives for low carbon electricity production and emissions reductions that help give market-based signals to companies like Calpine. That pushes them to find technologies that can cut emissions in the most efficient possible way, keeping costs lower for households while still meeting climate goals.
“We’re thrilled to flip the switch on this remarkable collaboration, which creates a new option for Calpine to supply California with reliable, clean, and affordable energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” added Alex Makler, Senior Vice President of Calpine’s West Region. “Working with innovative partners like Blue Planet is an important part of our far-reaching efforts to showcase the full potential of CCS as a critical emissions-reduction technology, which experts worldwide believe will play a key role in achieving global climate goals.”
Stay tuned for more special projects, new acquisitions and community outreach by competitive power suppliers propelling our power grid forward, and learn more about how competition makes it possible.