Meet the former Tesla executive who wants to take carbon dioxide out of the air

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Microsoft, Stripe, Shopify, H&M — hell, even Coldplay — are some of the big clients that pay Swiss company Climeworks to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Climeworks was the first company to sell the service in 2017 using its new-fangled direct air capture technology.

There is still protest from some environmentalists against this strategy to tackle climate change. They would rather see these brands stop pumping out pollution. Unfortunately, that is not happening nearly fast enough to prevent global temperatures from rising. And the demand for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that builds up in our atmosphere is on the rise.

“There is increasing demand for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that is building up in our atmosphere.”

Climeworks runs what is currently the world’s largest operating direct air collection facility. And it plans to scale up massively. That’s a big task for former Tesla executive Douglas Chan, who was recently appointed chief operations officer by Climeworks. The edge spoke to Chan about what’s next for the company and what the carbon removal industry could learn from electric vehicles.

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

You had a big role at Tesla before you joined Climeworks – after electric cars, why get into CO2 removal? Do you see the carbon removal work as complementary to what Tesla is doing?

I loved Tesla as a place, the people I worked with. At Climeworks the people are super driven, just as super motivated. The challenge ahead is actually what excites me. It’s an industry that’s so nascent, doesn’t exist yet. We have this opportunity to really build it, create it. If we do our job well, and I am convinced we will, we will have a huge impact.

There are all parts of the pie. There is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Then there is removal of it. So I mean, everyone plays a role in this whole ecosystem in helping us meet climate goals.

Since direct air capture is such a new industry, are there any similarities to the early days of electric cars or even solar panels that you see?

It’s similar to any new technology in my mind. It’s something that needs to be scaled and built and grow. All of these industries more or less face the same challenges to gain adoption and scale the industry. That’s a really fun and exciting challenge for me, isn’t it? How are we actually going to do that?

Chan stands in front of a building that reads 'Climeworks'.

Douglas Chan, chief operations officer at Climeworks.
Image: Climeworks

What did you work on at Tesla? And how does that relate to your current role at Climeworks?

At Tesla, you work on everything. That’s one of the fun things. And very similar to what we are doing now.

The automotive manufacturing process has multiple manufacturing divisions, and I was in one of them. I kind of led the launch of some of those manufacturing facilities in each of the countries as Tesla scaled.

So in terms of relevance, it’s kind of like what we’re trying to do at Climeworks. We are trying to build more factories and scale up our operations around the world as well. And do it very quickly.

Are there any lessons you will take to Climeworks after helping to scale operations internationally at Tesla?

How you work with different cultures at scale is important. It’s soft but important, right? To get something done quickly, we need to be able to work with people who are in those countries to be able to do that. How do we go about building those networks, those relationships with suppliers and vendors and the supply chain in each of those places? That will be the same challenge we have here at Climeworks.

Is there anything that feels really unique or different about carbon removal in terms of how you sell this new technology?

Yes, this is something I’ve thought about before. Why is it so much harder to sell carbon removal as a service than Tesla sells a car?

I mean, it’s elusive, right? It would be super cool if it was a color in the sky, and the better we do it, the lighter the color becomes, or it goes from red to green or something. But it is elusive. You can’t put your hand on it right away. So that’s a challenge for me. How do we solve that as Climeworks? The fact that we are very strong in monitoring, reporting and verification. That way it’s a different challenge.

For someone unfamiliar with direct air capture not at all, how would you explain it?

“That’s pretty much how I described it to friends and family when they asked me: nice air conditioners.”

Super simplistic, it’s like an air conditioner cooling your house. But the conditioner removes CO2 from the air. You suck in CO2 and what comes out has no CO2. And we permanently store the CO2. That’s more or less how I described it to friends and family when they asked me: luxury air conditioners.

Climeworks says it wants to increase its carbon removal capacity to gigatons by 2050. a big leap given that all DAC plants in the world today can only capture 0.01 million tons of CO2. Climeworks’ largest factory to date under construction, Mammoth, can capture 36,000 tons of CO2 per year. What will it take to scale up to meet your gigaton goal? What do you see as some of the biggest challenges ahead?

The speed at which we are looking at scaling up is not utopian. There are parallels to be drawn with the scale of renewable energy, which is very similar in terms of how we try to grow as an industry as well. One of the things I’m really focusing on this year is really getting ready for a scalable formula as we go forward.

As we look at how the industry is growing, this concept of hubs is just going to happen. As much as I’d like to say, hey, Climeworks is going to be the one and only, and we’re going to solve every problem in the world – there are multiple players in the carbon dioxide removal industry. Essentially, what the hubs do provide is a network where multiple direct air capture companies can feed into a pipeline network. There are pipeline companies all lined up in America. They’re going to build carbon dioxide pipelines. It will make transport more affordable and efficient.

Some carbon removal companies were open to working with oil and gas Occidental oil company and Carbon Engineering, working together to build DAC facilities in Texas. And some of the carbon they capture will be used improved oil recovery to generate what Occidental calls “net-zero oil.” Is that something Climeworks would ever consider?

If you look at my background, I came out of oil and gas a long time ago. But we’re not doing it right now, and I don’t see us doing it in terms of offering direct air capture technology for enhanced oil recovery. It’s kind of the opposite of what we’re trying to do. So it certainly doesn’t fit into our kind of commercial step-by-step plan or even our step-by-step plan for cooperation.

But what we will not neglect is that the oil and gas companies have a lot of experience in storage. They know where these reservoirs and wells are. So as we explore these high-value CO2 storage sites, there is expertise that can be leveraged.

What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of carbon removal?

Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify were among Climeworks’ early customers. What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of carbon removal?

I can answer this in two ways: many of these tech companies have established strong science-based target initiatives for net zero carbon emissions, so I think they certainly support this industry from a customer perspective. But there are also probably a lot of these technology companies, which will have products that can help feed the supply chain — software companies, but also hardware.

I hear from experts that carbon removal would eventually play a small role compared to the clean energy transition to avoid greenhouse gas emissions. But we’re starting to see carbon removal becoming sort of a trendy way for different brands to deal with their emissions. How do you scale up this technology without it becoming a way for companies to avoid reducing their CO2 emissions in the first place?

Being very conscious I think we hear this a lot in the corridors…. greenwashing is something that I think is a valid question. How do we prevent that? I honestly don’t have a good answer for you there.

The challenge that Climeworks faces, as well as the industry, is something that’s really exciting to me. I’m very happy to be a part of solving this problem, creating an industry and getting it to the point where it’s accessible to everyone.

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