Colorado pioneering carbon capture project at ethanol plants

A pioneering carbon capture company wants to take the climate change fight to northeastern Colorado by gathering 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from ethanol fermentation at plants in Yuma and Sterling and injecting it into underground wells.

Carbon America announced the project Thursday with Sterling Ethanol and Yuma Ethanol, in apparently the first commercial operation of its kind to sequester significant amounts of carbon in Colorado. The state has ambitious goals to cut carbon releases to combat global warming in coming decades, and some experts believe carbon capture and sequestration is a vital additional tool alongside cutting overall emissions from industrial production.

Arvada-based Carbon America wants to finish the project and begin sequestration in northeast Colorado in 2024, after an extensive EPA permitting process. To fund construction, the company gathers investors who can take advantage of federal tax credits for carbon projects, including Wall Street giants. Most ethanol is added to gasoline for cleaner-burning vehicle fuel.

Carbon America plans to build a pipeline from the ethanol producing plants to injection wells, drilled thousands of feet into the same stable underground formations in the Denver-Julesburg Basin often explored for oil and gas. While the ultimate goal to stop climate change needs to be elimination of fossil fuel burning, Carbon America CEO Brent Lewis said, carbon capture and storage is needed as a bridge reduction technology.

Utilities that buys the most carbon have cleaner generation projects planned, but don’t plan to close coal and natural gas plants all at once.

“We can’t make that happen today,” Lewis said. “Those take time. We think we can move faster and move now to take out some of the CO2 emitted from plants that just can’t be shut down yet, in order for us to still have a growing economy.”

As a comparison, the Rio Grande cement plant in Pueblo emitted 802,000 tons of carbon in 2020, according to the EPA. Many gas- and coal-fired electric power plants were over 1 million tons each, and the emissions champ was Xcel’s Comanche complex in Puebloat 4.5 million tons. Colorado’s 2005 benchmark for overall state CO2 emissions was about 140 million tons a year. From there, the state requires the total to be cut by 26% in 2025, and 50% in 2030.

Utility and carbon emissions experts say the Carbon America project is a worthy first experiment that will produce useful results.

“Carbon capture and storage is something we’re going to need to get to decarbonization goals by 2050,” said Pat O’Connell, a New Mexico engineer and energy analyst with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, and an adviser to the Colorado task force on carbon sequestration. “There hasn’t been a lot of success with those carbon capture projects on the power plant site. So I’m super interested to see how well the ethanol project works.”

Carbon America has been talking with the Colorado Energy Office, legislators, and other state departments about the project, and may seek grants or other assistance in continuing the work, Lewis said. The legislature just passed Senate Bill 193which includes a $25 million grant fund to support carbon sequestration and other greenhouse gas cleanup efforts.

The EPA created a new class of injection well permits to account for the growing interest in carbon sequestration. Rules include extensive geologic studies to find stable storage sites, continued monitoring to ensure CO2 remains captured, financial responsibility for the site after injection ceases, and measurement of how much CO2 is stored as part of ongoing greenhouse gas monitoring. There are no permitted projects so far in Coloradoaccording to the EPA’s website.

The project could help northeastern Colorado produce some of the lowest-carbon ethanol available, according to a statement from Dave Kramer, president of Sterling Ethanol and Yuma Ethanol. The ethanol plants were launched in 2005 by local corn farmers, ranchers and investors. “Carbon capture and storage will allow us to continue supporting our rural communities and their farming and cattle operations and their economic development, while significantly reducing our environmental impact,” he said.

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