As we have reported recently, Wyoming has started looking for new ways to use coal, beyond simply burning it for power. The state is also starting to look at new ways to use a coal byproduct that has become a serious liability: carbon dioxide. The recently announced $20 million Carbon XPrize is intended to spur innovators to address that very problem. Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce sat down with Paul Bunje of the XPrize Foundation to learn more.
STEPHANIE JOYCE: What exactly is the Carbon XPrize?
PAUL BUNJE: So we at the XPrize put out giant prize competitions to target some of the world’s biggest ‘grand challenges.’ And in this case what we’re looking at is carbon dioxide emissions—the main greenhouse gas that drives climate change. And the $20 million Carbon XPrize, the NRG-Cosia Carbon XPrize is a chance for teams from anywhere in the world to create technology, a solution, that can take CO2 that’s coming out of a power plant and instead of just letting it go into the air, turn it into something useful, turn it into a product. And the teams that can turn the most carbon dioxide from a power plant into one or more products that have the highest net value, selling it into the marketplace, win.
JOYCE: How is this different and why are you choosing to go this route instead of carbon capture and sequestration?
BUNJE: This is essentially the missing piece that’s been overlooked a bit, which can be called carbon utilization or conversion. Instead of just capturing it and burying it underground, could you turn it into something useful? So many things in our daily lives—building materials like cement, and the clothes we wear—they’re made of out carbon, so you could take that carbon dioxide and convert it into useful products and that starts to give businesspeople, entrepreneurs a chance to make some money taking the CO2 directly out of the power plants, so it’s not driving climate change.
JOYCE: You mention that part of the prize is who can create the most value. Is part of the prize related to who can sequester the most carbon as opposed to simply reusing it and then subsequently emitting it, or is it simply who can create the most value?
BUNJE: This prize is focused directly on creating the most value, really because we want to start turning on businesses and industries to the opportunity that’s here.
JOYCE: So, the fundamental premise of the prize I think could be questioned in that, what we really want to be doing is eliminating CO2. Incentivizing actually the creation of CO2 because it’s a marketable product seems like it might be going in the opposite direction of where a lot of people would suggest we need to go. So how would you respond to the criticism that creating a market for CO2 is really not going to help us in the long run?
BUNJE: The Carbon XPrize targets the tragedy of the commons that CO2 is free to waste and put into the atmosphere and drive climate change. Taking any portion of that we can and instead of just letting it go into the atmosphere and turning that into something useful. And if you can actually scale that up because you have market forces looking to do it, then that’s a potential game changer. It’s critical that we address that CO2 and give every possible incentive to every possible player in the world: businesses, individuals, government. Give them the chance to actually address that CO2 in as many ways as possible.
JOYCE: I think a lot of people would say what we should actually be doing is just transitioning to a fossil fuel-free energy environment. Why is that not the solution instead?
BUNJE: We at XPrize believe there are a myriad, a ton, of solutions that are needed for a grand challenge like carbon dioxide emissions or greenhouse gas emissions. There is no grand challenge in the world, be it poverty or illiteracy or access to health care that has a silver bullet solution to it. And the same is true of climate change and the CO2 that’s driving that. As a result, we believe that we need a huge basket of solutions that are associated with it.
JOYCE: So, explain to me how the world will look when this XPrize is actually awarded.
BUNJE: The great this about an XPrize is we’re out there to incentivize other brilliant innovators, the solvers of the world to do something amazing. And instead of being able to predict what’s going to happen and write a plan for 2020, what we do is put an incentive out there that we know will lead a lot of people from all over the world to start putitng their efforts into new innovations, new technologies, new solutions. I wish I could tell you exactly how amazing it’s going to be. What I do know is that there are going to be technologies that can turn carbon dioxide into a useful product and that’s going to be a massive transformation. What I don’t know is just how broadly defined they’re going to be, how amazingly interesting they’re going to be or how that might inspire other that are working on every other element of the CO2 challenge?
JOYCE: Can you give an example of a past XPrize that has spurred the kind of changes that you’re hoping this will?
BUNJE: In a totally different field. We have 10 years of history now seeing what happened with the first XPrize, which a $10M competition to privately fund a spaceship that could go into space twice within two weeks. At that time, teams got together and spent more than $100 million trying to win the $10 million. And there was almost no private space industry in existence. It was NASA or the Russians. And at that point began what we have seen a decade later, which is private spaceflight. That includes about a $3 billion a year industry, everything from nanosatellites to SpaceX and private rockets. That’s the kind of leverage and change and transformation that you really can’t see in advance, because you don’t know how all of those solvers, all of those innovators that just want a bite at the apple, a chance to solve something great, what they’re going to end up doing. But because we’ve seen it before, I’m optimistic that we’re going to see it again.
JOYCE: How is Wyoming involved in this?
BUNJE: Every XPrize needs a place to actually test, so that the teams can actually prove what they’ve done. Not just have a great idea, prove it. We’re having in Wyoming, with the support of the Wyoming government as well as other partners there, a giant integrated test center that’s being built right next to a coal-fired power plant. And that’s going to serve as one of the final locations for the five finalist teams to take their technology. They’re going to be able to go straight to Wyoming, they're going to build out their technology at the integrated test center, and then they’re going to be able to compete for that final grand prize by spending several months actually converting the carbon dioxide that’s coming from an actual, working Wyoming power plant and turning that into incredible products. And we’ll see exactly what those are, but Wyoming is going to be at the heart of a transformation in carbon technology.
JOYCE: I really appreciate you taking the time.
BUNJE: It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.