Hyperloopism Comes to Carbon Capture and Storage

Elon Musk may offer a $100 million prize to someone who figures it out.

Thanks, Elon!

David Livingston/Getty Images

A few years ago I was complaining about a plan to 3D-print houses for low-income communities in South America, and @SheRidesABike tweeted in response:

Hyperloopism, based on Elon Musk's Hyperloop, is the perfect word to define a new and unproven technology which nobody is sure will work, that probably isn't better or cheaper than the way things are done now, and is often counterproductive and used as an excuse to actually do nothing at all. I thought about it again when Elon Musk announced recently that he was going to offer a $100 million prize for the best carbon capture technology:

The week came and went with no further details, so I decided not to wait any longer to discuss hyperloopism again in terms of carbon capture and storage (CCS) or as it is now known, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as people try and figure out how to do something useful with all of that CO2.

Elon Musk has done and continues to do amazing things on land and in space, but the Hyperloop isn't one of them; it's an idea he threw out there in 2013 and that was picked up by others. Allison Arieff described it best as “transportation's mysterious new girlfriend – mysterious, unencumbered, exciting, expensive. A wild card with potential. But does she have long-term potential? That remains to be seen.” She wrote that in 2016 and we keep hearing that it is right around the corner, coming down the pipe, but it still remains to be seen.

Now Musk is throwing another idea out there with CCUS, putting 1/1850th of his current wealth behind it with this prize. But CCUS is very much like the Hyperloop or the autonomous car; this isn't about technology, it is about maintaining the status quo.

CCUS lets the oil companies keep drilling and producing; CCUS lets them capture the CO2 from car exhaust, the CO2 from natural gas so that they can sell blue hydrogen, it lets us keep doing what we do without making major changes and sacrifices. The oil companies are big supporters of it; as Kate Aronoff wrote in TNR:

"Talking up carbon capture is good for fossil fuel companies – it makes the next few decades look profitable for them. Companies from ExxonMobil to Shell to Occidental Petroleum have all boasted about investments in carbon capture while continuing to double down on their core business model of finding and digging up as much oil and gas as possible."

Why Elon Musk is giving a $100 million gift to the oil companies eludes me, but the fact remains that CCUS, like hyperloopism in general, is the enemy of a low-energy, low-carbon economy. It doesn't even have to exist; the promise of it alone impedes progress, just as the Hyperloop and autonomous cars have been used as excuses to not invest in public transit and trains. (See Hyperloop Is Hard at Work, Killing Taxes and Public Investment.) It keeps us from looking at alternatives, just as Kris de Decker says energy efficiency policies did:

"The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service. Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives."

CCUS marginalizes more sustainable alternatives as well. Michael Burchert thinks he's won the prize with his straw bale construction that locks CO2 in the walls of his buildings. Many others just tweet pictures of trees and say they will accept PayPal.

The fact is, we know how to fix things and solve this problem, how to dramatically reduce both embodied and operating carbon emissions. We know how to make buildings out of wood and straw, how to move people electrically on bikes, transit, trains, and even cars. We know how to build communities, towns, and cities where you rarely need to use a car. We know how to power all this with low- and zero-carbon energy.

We just don't want to. It's not convenient. It's not a choice we want to make. But if we have CCUS we don't have to change a thing, we can just suck all that CO2 out of the air.

Elon ex Machina

I once wrote in an archived post that "Hyperloopism is the religion of the day, and Elon Musk will solve it all." What we now have is a form of deus ex machina – god from the machine. A plot device developed by Aeschylus, who dropped an actor onto the stage with a crane. Merriam-Webster defines it as "whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence."

Hyperloopism brings us CCUS, a plot device, Elon ex machina, that could solve everything. And who knows, with a prize that big, someone may come up with technology that doesn't take the vast amount of energy that current CCUS systems do. And maybe it will not need, as one study noted, “massive mobilization and diversion of material, human and energy resources,” not to mention years to build out.

I think it is all a diversion. A way of avoiding making hard choices, but one should never underestimate Elon Musk. Who knows, he might buy all that CO2 and turn it into rocket fuel and take us to Mars. Won't I look silly then?

So far as I can tell, credit for coining the word "hyperloopism" should go to Matthew Yglesias, who wrote The Trouble With Hyperloopism in 2013.