Log Lunch with Chris Varrone '85- Carbon Capture and Storage

This week the Log Lunch community welcomed back Chris Varrone ’85 to speak about his work in carbon capture and storage technologies. Varrone currently serves as Managing Director of Pickwick Capital Partners. He graduated from Williams with a degree in political science and went on to get a masters in economics at Cambridge, work at McKinsey&Company, and serve as Chief Strategist, Tech R&D, at Vestas Wind Systems in Denmark.

The bulk of Chris’s talk articulated the history of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and its role in the future of climate change and the energy economy. Until about 5 years ago, the technologies of CCS were too expensive and not very effective. There are two primary technological methods in CCS; as far as carbon capture goes, the first approach is direct air capture, which remains to be very expensive and underdeveloped. The second method is point source capture that sequesters CO2 from flue gas, which is more mature, but until the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act, 2022) was still not cheap enough for large-scale
implementation outside of EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery). Geological sequestration promises the largest scale, compared with biological and chemical approaches. The geological sequestration technology can also be divided into two main approaches: the conventional method stores carbon in saline aquifers deep underground, and the unconventional uses coal beds in shallower areas. Chris described the first approach using saline aquifers as a “balloon” that stores the carbon in a contained, pressurized area. The unconventional method acts as more of a “sponge,” stabilizing the carbon in the coal matrix at lower pressure. This second approach is cheaper and more effective; so far, 400,000 tonnes of carbon have been stored in coal in a variety of projects around the world in the last 30 years.

Even though both the capturing and storing technologies are somewhat underdeveloped and still very expensive, they have become cheaper and more effective in recent years and could have a large impact on climate mitigation. Chris emphasized their importance as part of the solution; that is to say, while solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources start to overtake non-renewables, there has to be another component to the solution that involves sequestering the carbon. For Chris, CCS technologies can be part of that answer. If we want to keep global warming within 2°C in the coming decades, we would have to sequester about 25,000 million tonnes of carbon per year for the next 70 years. Chris emphasized that we need solutions like CCS if we’re going to make that difference in the coming years. In the Q&A after the talk, several Williams students pushed back against CCS as a solution that perpetuates the use of fossil fuels and doesn’t prioritize less expensive, more practical, and more climate justice-oriented solutions. Chris responded by acknowledging the truth behind their concerns and recognized that CCS can’t be the sole solution, but rather a complement to a future renewable energy economy. In his eyes, the way forward has to be a multi-faceted approach that involves carbon drawdown in addition to the promotion of renewables. 

This week’s Log Lunch-goers were treated to a caramelized onion galette, a miso chickpea veggie soup, rice & roasted beet salad, and some maple shortbread cookies for dessert, baked with maple syrup from Hopkins Forest (reminder that the Hopkins Forest Maple Fest will be this Saturday from 10-1! Open to all). The beets, carrots, onions used are from Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury Vermont. 

Former political science professor Kurt Tauber (left) with Chris Varrone ’85.

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.