The180

Carbon capture: Coal power enabler, or the way to a green energy future?

The province of Saskatchewan has just turned a coal-fired power plant into "the world's first and largest commercial scale CCS Project of its kind."SaskPower says the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage Project will make the province's continued use of coal environmentally and economically viable.But critics say instead of being the way of the future, this application of CCS...

The province of Saskatchewan has just turned a coal-fired power plant into "the world's first and largest commercial scale CCS Project of its kind."

SaskPower says the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage Project will make the province's continued use of coal environmentally and economically viable.

But critics say instead of being the way of the future, this application of CCS technology is just enabling Saskatchewan to hold on to its fossil-fuel guzzling past.

PLUS: Check out our PSA: Three signs YOU might be a CCSS.

How it works

Carbon Capture and Storage systems can work in a number of ways. In this case, carbon dioxide will be collected from the gases created when coal is burned to fuel the power plant. The CO2 will be trapped before it can enter the atmosphere, and then liquefied and stored.

Robert Watson, President and CEO of SaskPower, told Jim Brown that the new CCS project will divert as much as one million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

In some cases, CCS projects store the liquefied gas permanently in spent oil reservoirs, in unused mines, or saline formations more than five kilometres underground. The captured CO2 from the Boundary Dam power plant, however, will go to another use.

"In Saskatchewan we have enhanced oil recovery," Watson says. "When liquid CO2 is pumped into the ground and hits heavy oil it actually chemically attaches to it, expands it, and forces it out of the ground."

Captured carbon will be used again

As much as 90 per cent of the liquefied carbon dioxide captured in this program will be sold to energy companies, to aid in the extraction of more oil. It's part of SaskPower's plan for making the CCS program financially sustainable -- an important element given the project's $1.4 billion price tag.

We are going to spend the next two years testing out not only the technology, the operating model, but also the financial model, and see how it performs financially, to see whether it is advantageous to expand the program.Robert Watson, President and CEO, SaskPower

If it is successful, Watson says the Boundary Dam CCS project will fix the biggest problem caused by burning coal.

"We have a ready supply of coal. It's cheap. If it spills on the ground you pick it up and you put it into the bucket again. All the upfront process is quite safe. The only problem with burning coal is the excessive greenhouse gas emissions."

Opposition to the plan

John Bennett, National Program Director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, says carbon capture may be a useful tool in the future, but worries it's enabling the continued use of coal. He says projects like this use technology to fix a symptom, instead of targeting the problem itself. He's particularly critical of the plan to use captured carbon to extract more fossil fuels.

Harper tours Boundary Dam

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other dignitaries tour the Boundary Dam Power Plant in 2008. Credit: Troy Fleece, Canadian Press

He told Jim Brown that Watson and SaskPower should put their efforts elsewhere.

"He should be getting out of the coal business. He should be working for the people of Saskatchewan to build an electrical system that doesn't rely on burning coal to generate electricity. There are lots of other ways to produce power."

SaskPower's Watson says his utility is looking at all the options for clean power generation, but says there are reliability problems with solar in Saskatchewan's climate, and that other forms of power also emit carbon. He says this new project will make the coal plant more efficient than natural gas plants, and there are other reasons to try to make burning coal a cleaner proposition.

"We're looking at it as a responsible business model. In other words we've got a responsibility to supply affordable reliable safe power to the province of Saskatchewan. We are looking at all aspects, we're looking at renewables, we're looking at how we can clean up our coal burning plants so that they can be better than even gas-burning plants, so I think we're being quite responsible."

Other ways to invest

Still, John Bennett says that he and his organization could have used the province of Saskatchewan's money more efficiently when it comes to cutting CO2 emissions.

If the province of Saskatchewan had given me $1.4 billion, and said 'reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province,' I could have reduced a lot more emissions than they're going to reduce with this project, and made everyone's utility bills go down in the province.John Bennett, Sierra Club Canada Foundation

When asked how he could accomplish those goals, Bennett responded there would be a number of options.

"We would invest in energy efficiency and conservation. Install solar panels, better insulation, renovate buildings -- all kinds of incentives for property owners to improve their properties, to reduce demand for electricity. That would have reduce their emissions far more."

SaskPower says the retrofitted Boundary Dam Power Station will produce 110 Megawatts of electricity each year. The captured CO2 that is not used to aid in the extraction of oil will be sent to a carbon storage research facility, testing the long-term viability of CCS systems.

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