Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

SaskPower looking for help to fix 'high cost' Boundary Dam carbon capture flaw

SaskPower is looking for an engineering firm that can help solve an unexpected problem with the carbon capture plant at its Boundary Dam facility.

Crown corporation put out a tender for engineering help as current situation is 'not economically sustainable'

SaskPower is looking for outside help to fix a costly and unexpected problem with its carbon capture system and Boundary Dam. (CBC)

SaskPower is looking for an engineering firm that can help solve an unexpected problem with the carbon capture plant at its Boundary Dam facility. It's a problem that's forcing SaskPower into a "high cost" temporary fix that is "not economically sustainable."

Earlier this year, SaskPower put out a tender looking for a company that can "provide detailed engineering service for the thermal reclaimer unit at Boundary Dam Carbon Capture facility."

The thermal reclaimer purifies amine solution, a substance critical to the carbon capture process. Amine solution is used "to strip carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide from coal emissions," explained SaskPower president Mike Marsh in a December 2016 blog post.

"Like the oil in our cars, every time you use it, a small portion degrades and becomes less effective. That's why we get periodic oil changes."
SaskPower CEO Mike Marsh acknowledges the crown corporation has spent millions more than expected because of problems with its carbon capture technology. (CBC)

The thermal reclaimer cleans the amine solution so it can be reused.

However, a report prepared for SaskPower says the amine solution has been degrading at a significantly higher rate than predicted by the technology licenser.

That's where the extra cost comes in. The thermal reclaimer just can't keep up.

"Currently, mobile reclaiming units are being used at high cost to increase reclaiming capacity," the report says. "This approach is, however, not economically sustainable."

Temporary fix costing millions

In a blog post, SaskPower said for the 2015 and 2016 years it was planning to spend $17 million on amine maintenance but ended up spending almost double that — $32 million. It estimated it would spend another $15 million in 2017.

CBC asked SaskPower for an update on what this problem has cost the company but it didn't respond.

CBC also asked SaskPower if it will be trying to recover costs from the technology licensor Cansolv, which is owned by Shell Canada.

"There is an ongoing dispute resolution process," the company said in an email. "We will decline to comment further on the specifics of this issue."

In an email, a spokesperson for Shell Canada said this project is "the first commercial scale post-combustion carbon capture system at a coal-fired power plant in the world," and "It is not unusual for there to be a learning curve with first of a kind projects." 

"Shell Cansolv is working very closely with SaskPower to address the challenge, optimize operations and capture any lessons that may be applied to improve the project," the email said. 

SaskPower said it's seeking outside engineering help because "this work is highly specialized."

"We have some capacity for this chemical work internally and want to see the options and costs available externally."

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.