How to tell Great Cleantech from “Green Fraud”

How to tell great Cleantech

How to tell if Cleantech is great and valid takes work. I like to read up on success stories of cleantech projects. They can inspire. They help us believe in our planet’s future. Through it, we try to learn a workable path to follow on how to fund projects. They must meet the lofty goals of reversing climate heating and reducing carbon emissions. The best examples help us understand what success looks like. So how do we tell if it’s great cleantech if it lacks its own abbreviation?

This can be controversial. Occasionally I find a piece that makes me wonder, who’s riding on this green train, dressed up in a plausible-sounding story but with ulterior motives? And the key discovery is who’s got genuine, winning solutions? Take this recent blog from Gabriel Levy and its intro below:

Carbon dioxide removal sucks. There are better ways to tackle global warming

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out. A study published last month has confirmed.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations. It then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). But it emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed, the article shows.

Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for each tonne it recovers. Mostly it’s from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.

If DAC was instead powered by renewable electricity – as its supporters claim – it would wolf down other natural resources. And things get worse at large scale……..

So how can you tell great Cleantech schemes from Green Fraud?

Gabriel Levy, you’re maybe onto something there. But is stretching the results a crime? Probably not, unless they clearly misrepresent their technology’s potential in an investment prospectus. So am I reading that this is where Levy directs his sharpest skepticism? Is it just the dubious justifications of wacky carbon sequestration schemes? Do we just label it “Greenwashing” or is it as bad as being “Green Fraud”? The distinction may only extend to whether it’s deliberately or inadvertently “separating fools from their money“.

In fact here, just up the road to Whistler from Vancouver, there is a pilot project for one of these well-publicized DACs. The government has funded it to the tune of tens of millions. A picture in the above Levy article shows its doppelgangers in Hinwil, Switzerland. Will they ever go mainstream and become a commercial success, with or without subsidy? Do you have the technique to tell it’s great Cleantech?

If so, I should also hire their marketing person who convinced the government this method can lead the world in CDR and that it’s worthy of their funds. They raised tens of millions successfully. I scratched my head at their audacity, but Levy takes issue.

Does Hydragas’ Project Pass the Smell Test?

We must examine our own project’s credentials. I have no wish to be a “me-too”, let alone a “green fraud scheme” operator. But how would I tell that it classifies as great cleantech? Firstly, I should follow that altogether different philosophy that Levy mentions; “Climate Advisers says that natural solutions are the most readily available”. What is clear in the literature is that the definition is the first hurdle. Most definitions (there are many) follow the theme of defining the author’s area of interest to the exclusion of others. Therein is a less-than-solid start to validating our thinking.

Here’s the case in point. On invitation from their government, I started studying the case of Lake Kivu in Africa, over a decade ago. The government just wanted some natural gas production, as 99% of the country had firewood or charcoal as a fuel source and not much else. Gas had been discovered in 1935 in Lake Kivu. This was biogas, discovered in deeper parts of the lake, following research into why the lake was anoxic at depth. Fish were not growing larger than the limnothrassa minnows living on algae in shallow water. It is a large ecosystem developed by nature and barely touched by humans, although they live all around it in vast numbers. Their anthropogenic impacts such as industries and agricultural run-offs have been low-impact.

We needed a Breakthrough Innovation

But using the biogenic methane resource, by recovering dissolved biogas from depth, defied any conventional extraction method. A Belgian company created a novel, but a crudely effective siphon-based version in 1965. Despite its simplicity, nobody has yet deployed any substantial technological advance in subsequent commercial developments. The plants installed are grossly inefficient, wasting the majority of the limited resource. Currently, their scale is modest and their impact is slow to show up as serious degradation of the lake’s waters. But worse than that, they interfere with and slowly destroy the lake’s stability structure that keeps the gas sealed in. They, therefore, exacerbate a great danger, for which this lake already has serious potential.

That was the technology space that I had studied; to discover, develop and deploy a different concept of process innovation. Testing in situ showed this innovation to be capable of both high efficiency and ensuring long-term stability. It’s one that quintuples the gas recovery and generates 5-7x the power output, all the while continuing to ensure safety.

Years into developing the concept and design for the project, I see the environmental context and the lake’s role very differently. It may now be better defined as an exceptional, giant-scale, natural CCS. But that capacity is enhanced and expanded to greater potential, by developing it into a gigantic CCUS. However, that can only become that with well-conceived human intervention.

The Size of the Prize and the Problem

The lake’s success as a CCS system is because it can store more than 2 Gt of carbon in its 500 m deep water. Maybe it’s as much as 6 Gt, depending on the CH4:CO2 conversion ratio one uses (i.e 25 or 86 tons/ton). Indeed the lake’s potential downfall comes about because of this success. Even if it keeps up the current, but reassessed lower rate of carbon capture, this great big lake will catastrophically erupt in a century or two in a vast limnic eruption. It’s one of Africa’s Great Lakes and the second deepest, but with unique clean energy potential. Its massive threat can be turned into a great asset.


This limnic eruption potentially releases a millennium’s worth of trapped CCS in a day. (This Youtube video is a bit over the top, but mentions Kivu right at the end). It could spike global CO2 like no other single global event, releasing multiple gigatons in just one day. While a raft of PhDs have been earned, studying this lake’s many scientific phenomena, a few of us are extending that R&D by looking at CCUS as a potential solution. As happens all too often with the potential for riches, a few smash-and-grab opportunists seek short-cuts to get into the opportunity. Their methods are more like smash-and-grab exploitation than the careful application of science and engineering.

Identifying who the good guys are, or aren’t

So this human intervention becomes very scary if it’s not done right. In simplistic terms extracting gas involves taking out methane’s 20% of the total dissolved gases, from the world’s largest bio-digester and storage system, and re-injecting most of the 80% balance that is CO2. Doing it right is possible. But doing it crudely and wrong may be the way-too-easy route; by just copying what the Belgians did in 1965, but making a potentially huge disaster. They are on the path the way they have started, and we’re starting to see those consequences with a weakening safety structure in the deep water.

Their approach terrifies me because it’s like lighting a slow-burning fuse that we can never extinguish after it’s been burning for a few years. The lake’s own defences are breaking down, soon to reach a state that is no longer able to self-repair. These defences are the lake’s density layers, that probably took millennia to form. That’s like the ozone layer that was compromised by CFCs, except we can’t stop this breakdown by giving up CFCs. We need to stop using the wrong methods and switch to the right ones.

If it’s going this far wrong, who can fix it?

Exactly how complicated is Lake Kivu? These are deep and complex questions in a unique and very complex environment. I co-wrote a paper to detail the issues with Dr. Finn Hirslund, an engineer and scientist who’s made it his life’s work. The two of us were part of an International Expert Group of advisers that studied the problem in a three-year exercise up to 2009.

We’ve both spent the proverbial 10,000 hours on the problem. He has worked principally on understanding the trends and mechanisms of the natural transitions of the lake through its life cycle. I work on a complementary need, trying to perfect gas extraction. This needs to be done in a way that preserves, rather than destroys, the principal safety features that have evolved in the lake over millennia.

We participated in a team of specialised academics from Europe for four years to develop and publish the rules of the game. An agreement was achieved, but not without some detractors. Yet there remain still more mysteries to unravel, let alone agree on. It’s heavy-going material, but the paper lays out the detail of how and why we do what we do. This lake is no quick study.

It’s all in the definitions

If developed as a CCUS, Lake Kivu will be a natural phenomenon that can power up at least one country with clean, useful, cheaper energy. And what of the bonus of recapturing any CO2 from methane combustion, back deep into the lake? Can we make it a circular energy system? Even better, could the methanogens present be used to close the energy cycle, to convert CO2 back into methane? I believe we can through microbiology. Then I think we can tell a great Cleantech story, one of circularity, by the numbers.

In contemplating the potential downside, what if one’s ambition to enhance gas extraction would trigger the feared eruption? Millions of people live by the lake and they live under a slowly worsening, existential threat. In a limnic eruption, the lake’s 500 cubic km of water will release over 400 cubic km of dense, asphyxiating, and toxic gas. If triggered, this disaster can happen in a day-long, cataclysmic event. That is a terrifying possibility.

This is where we question; “How do climate funders get duped into pouring good money into flaky schemes?” The engineering math, that should always be used to invalidate any impractical or incorrectly assessed climate fixes, is too often being glossed over. Following the herd into these schemes can be just as crazy as Levy implies. Ironically fads seem to sell better than real solutions. They always require a hard sell and that is where the effort is applied.

Is it in the Data, how to Tell it’s Great Cleantech?

But I’m an engineer, and I’ve had a long run in oil & gas and energy projects. So I get that the energy balances show it and that the feasibility of some CDR and CCUS projects, let alone DAC, just don’t work as real solutions. They may be the loony-tunes schemes of the climate change genre or just faulty economics, but they remain oddly fashionable. They get the funds. Do they know how to tell a great cleantech story better?

For example, this scheme in Africa does not require 7,000 TWh to capture and prevent the eruption of 2 Gt of carbon. In fact, in achieving that it can also generate 265 TWh of electricity from methane that we can harvest. Better than that, converting the lake from a natural CCS to a tweaked natural CCUS brings the danger of eruption back from the brink. The risk level comes down by orders of magnitude every decade. As for the energy, it costs less than half as much as the diesel-driven power it replaces. That’s before we account for any value for the gigatons of carbon emissions we avert. We think this is how to tell great cleantech from impostors.

So how best do we tell if it’s a great cleantech? Does it come down to categories?

Sounds good? Have you ever tried to get funding for a “natural solution”, especially one that doesn’t categorise as standard? i.e. Something with a three-letter anagram like CCU or DAC. Fundability is first assessed by how familiar your innovation is to the assessor. (Now that’s both an oxymoron and an irony for defining cleantech innovation). It’s a world where we still categorise solar voltaic and wind power as innovative, a quarter-century on.

Don’t dare to come up with something completely new, in teaching investors how to tell it’s great cleantech. Feedback is likely to be, “If it’s so innovative, how come I haven’t heard of it before?” Or try this, from a financial institution, “We don’t have a category for that one. Sorry”. Or better yet, “You did well on 14 of 15 items on our checklist, but you’ll have to build it in Canada to qualify on job creation. We need jobs locally”. Ah, the tyranny of the clerks! There’s only one shared atmosphere to benefit from the gigatons of carbon reduction. Wherever it’s achieved, it works just the same for us in Canada.

So I wrote another blog last year, on how to re-categorise the project into something with an acceptable abbreviation. Does that blog show how to tell it’s great Cleantech? No. It just asks how to find an appropriate niche out of a bowl of cleantech alphabet soup. It contains our climate funding game’s best-known set of three-letter abbreviations. Pick one, DAC, CCS, PV etc.