It might sound like science fiction, but members of Dublin, Calif., Local 595 recently finished work on a facility where carbon dioxide, the key chemical compound driving the global climate change crisis, gets absorbed right out of the air.
“As our members continue to work on renewable energy sources that reduce reliance on fossil fuels, we’re proud to be at the forefront of this innovative solution to the greenhouse effect problem,” said Greg Bonato, business manager of Local 595, whose jurisdiction covers about 2,500 members in California’s Alameda, Calaveras and San Joaquin counties.
The plant is the first of its kind in the U.S. and uses a direct air capture method that relies on wind power. Heirloom Carbon Technologies chose the site in Tracy, Calif. — about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco — because of the area’s high winds, said Local 595 Business Representative Gorgina Halaufia.
The Heirloom facility, which started operating in fall 2023, comprises a cluster of 40-foot-high open-air racks. Each holds dozens of trays filled with powdered limestone, which is a mix of calcium oxide and carbon dioxide, or CO2.
During natural, years-long processes, some of limestone’s CO2 gas escapes, leaving the remaining solids to attract and store replacement CO2. The technique used by Heirloom greatly accelerates this cycle to just three days, using kilns powered by renewable energy to heat the limestone and then siphon away the outgassed CO2 for storage, either underground or in concrete.
The remnant calcium oxide is then spread onto the trays, which robots place into the racks, and the sequence repeats. Heirloom’s technique differs from one that’s been in use in Europe since 2017, which employs fans and filters for CO2 extraction.
Getting the work on this project took some effort, Halaufia said. One hurdle was navigating the permitting and approvals process with the city of Tracy. “Leaning heavily on our relationships with elected officials helped move things across the finish line,” she said.
Also, the site chosen by Heirloom is owned by Tracy Renewable Energy. “The IBEW and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 442 already had a project labor agreement with Tracy Renewable for our work on their facilities,” Halaufia said. After the two companies connected, Heirloom agreed to honor the PLA.
Once the project began, about 20 Local 595 members with signatory contractor Morrow Meadows worked at the plant at various times. And while Heirloom’s technique might be new, the technology behind it is not.
“Local 595 members were well-trained and able to perform the electrical work due to the training and continuing education they receive at the JATC,” Halaufia said. Safety training also played a crucial role in efficiently managing the sometimes triple-digit-degree heat and ensuring the progress of the project, which ultimately took less than a year.
Ninth District International Vice President David Reaves applauded Local 595’s success in putting the IBEW at the forefront of this emerging technology. “Getting jobs on projects like these is a group effort involving all IBEW members,” he said. “Now that our members have demonstrated a proven track record of being the best in building direct air capture facilities, our opportunities in climate jobs continue to grow.”
In the planet’s race against climate change, growth and speed are welcome. The burning of organic fossil fuels worldwide in 2022 was responsible for the release into the atmosphere of 36.6 billion tons of CO2, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That compares with 10.9 billion tons per year in the 1960s.
While Heirloom’s goal is to remove 1 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2035, the Tracy plant can remove only about 1,000 tons of CO2 from the air per year. To help the company expand and grow to meet its goals, Heirloom sells credits for removing atmospheric carbon to companies such as Microsoft, Meta and McKinsey.
Interest in this field is burgeoning, thanks in part to help from the Department of Energy, which has made available $35 million to help create a market for direct air capture technologies like Heirloom’s. Last year, the Biden administration awarded more than $1 billion to Heirloom and similar businesses to boost investments in a variety of carbon capture projects, as well as grants to encourage state and local governments to use carbon-storing concrete or related byproducts.
All this attention bodes well for the IBEW. The next Heirloom facility, planned for Louisiana, is eligible for up to $600 million in federal funding, and Halaufia said that thanks to Local 595’s quality work in Tracy, the company has expressed an interest in partnering with IBEW on that project as well.