What do we really know about Saskatchewan, those of us who don’t live there? Lots of cold and snow, perhaps, and if you’re like me you also picture Sasquatch, simply because I have a tendency to mix-up similar sounding words.
What you probably don’t know about Saskatchewan is that the province is also a world leader in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Additionally, residents have reported very few sightings of Sasquatch.
Carbon capture—the process of pumping carbon emitted from coal-burning power plants to permanent underground reservoirs, thus preventing it from contributing to climate change—has been a somewhat pie-in-the-sky idea for a decade or more. But casual news readers may believe these carbon storage plants have been in business for a long time, such is the sorry state of public discourse about reducing carbon emissions. Politicians talk about them like they’re on every corner. Theoretically, carbon capture has been possible for a long time—like 100 years, give or take. In practice, not so much.
But good news—Canada just opened the world’s first large-scale carbon capture plant at the Boundary Dam power station in Estevan, Saskatchewan, on the border with North Dakota. You can watch a video of the CCS apparatus at the Boundary Dam project here. This is a retrofit of an existing power plant, and when I say “retrofit,” I mean “wildly expensive public works project.”
The CCS updates to the already-functioning Boundary Dam plant cost $1.2 billion, but I’m guessing that’s in Canadian dollars. Given the current exchange rate, the same project in the United States would be a bargain at only $1.07 billion. The Boundary Dam plant will annually divert approximately 1 million tons of carbon dioxide to underground reservoirs, which is “the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the road.” Please, nobody read that as a license to add 250,000 more cars to the road!
With the logistics of carbon capture having been so long known in engineering circles, why has it taken so long to get such a system up and running? I mean—could we have been doing this all along?
No, because there’s a catch. Carbon capture itself requires lots of energy. In the Saskatchewan plant, run by SaskPower, the storage process requires a whopping 20 percent of the electricity the plant generates—enough to power 25,000 homes (so I guess that’s really only 225,000 cars off the road—or something like that). The percentage of a power plant’s energy devoted to CCS is called the “energy penalty.” If there’s anything a red-blooded American capitalist doesn’t like, it’s a penalty. But, with current technology at least, that’s the price we’ll need to pay.
But back to Canada. The Boundary Dam plant is only the latest in Saskatchewan’s history of dedication to CCS. Previously, the Weyburn Project was the largest CCS test project implemented in the world. The project, which ran until 2011, involved the Weyburn and Midale oil fields in southern Saskatchewan, close to the U.S. border and not far from the Boundary Dam plant, and will permanently sequester 40 megatons of CO2 in the dark recesses of Mother Earth. Over the course of the project’s 11 years, scientists studied the practicalities of CCS in an effort to develop best practices guidelines for future CCS projects around the world.
In the United States, CCS development has been spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center. The first commercial plant to come online with CCS technology in the United States will most likely be one belonging to Southern Company in Kemper County, Mississippi. The plan is to capture 65 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions. It is slated to open in May, 2015.
In true American fashion, we plan to outdo the Canadians: The Kemper County plant will cost $5.5 billion. Holy smokes! That’s more than the Hubble Space Telescope and just a tad less than the Large Hadron Collider. It’s these high costs that have effectively prevented the development of a market for carbon capture facilities. At a buy-in this big, fiscal responsibility will trump environmental stewardship every time.
Ultimately, when it comes to carbon capture as of 2014 (and most likely 2015 and 2016 too), “there’s no market,” according Edward S. Rubin, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, unless governments impose “a requirement to substantially reduce emissions.” Even if carbon capture becomes mandatory on new plants, the incentive will be for power companies to invest more heavily in natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but not a panacea.
Of course, carbon capture comes with its own dangers. Like fracking, it may cause small earthquakes or contaminate drinking water. Or the CO2 could simply find its way back to the atmosphere through some poorly understood mechanism. Truth is, modern civilization doesn’t seem amenable to large-scale environmentalism, but some great minds out there are doing what they can.
Until then, Canada, thank you for your exports.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.