CCS Facility Steps Towards "Clean Coal," But it's Not a Silver Bullet

Sask Power Boundary Dam

By Jonny Wakefield

October 9, 2014

The operators of a refurbished coal power plant in Saskatchewan say new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will reduce the plant’s emissions by up to 90 per cent. But while some are heralding carbon capture and storage as a way to clean up a cheap and dirty source of power, critics say CCS is no silver bullet for our carbon woes. 

On Thursday, SaskPower unveiled its Boundary Dam coal plant in Estevan, Saskatchewan, a $1.24 billion project touted as the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage facility. 

Using steel piping to bury emissions deep underground, the plant is expected to prevent roughly one million tons of carbon emissions a year from entering the atmosphere — the equivalent of 90 per cent of the plant’s output.

The power authority will in turn to sell the captured carbon dioxide to Cenovus, which will use the gas in its oilfield operations.

Unlike Quebec and B.C., which have significant hydroelectric resources, Saskatchewan relies on coal for more than half its power generation. Proponents say retrofitting older plants can make economic sense in areas with that energy mix, as well as provide a model for emerging markets that are poised to gobble up cheap coal. 

But while CCS could be a relatively cheap alternative to building new facilities, Boundary Dam was built with significant government subsidies (Ottawa kicked in around $240 million), and ratepayers can expect increases in their utility bills to cover costs.

The economics of the project are one of the reasons critics are cautioning against looking to CCS as an alternative to greener energy sources.

The journal Nature estimates “thousands of CCS projects” would need to be built between now and 2050 “to put a serious dent in emissions.” 

In the meantime, CCS will do little to break dependence on fossil fuels.

Sierra Club Canada executive director John Bennett said the project is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“It’s a propaganda move to appear to be taking action on climate change when in reality it is actually furthering the interests of oil,” he told Reuters in reference to the partnership with Cenovus.