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While the United States struggles to convert conventional power plants to “clean-coal” facilities, the world’s first generator to capture most of its carbon dioxide has opened in Canada. But it, too, has drawbacks.
First, the 110-megawatt Boundary Dam project in Estevan, Saskatchewan province still emits some carbon -- as much as a plant powered by natural gas. Beyond that, the captured CO2 is being used to extract more oil – not a clean-burning fuel – from nearby wells.
Meanwhile, the FutureGen project outside the town of Meridosia, Ill., begun in 2001, has yet to generate its first clean watt of electricity due to design changes and cost overruns. A similar project in Mississippi has also faced delays, most due to financial problems.
The $1.4 billion Canadian plant, which is operated by the provincial utility SaskPower, is a retrofitted coal-fired generator that includes new post-combustion technology engineered to capture 90 percent of its carbon exhaust. It’s one of several methods involved in carbon capture and storage, or CCS.
To experts in the field, it’s an important step on the way to reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.
Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology’s Energy Initiative, told MIT Technology Review, “It’s significant because it’s the first commercial-scale installation at a power plant.”
SaskPower says its plant turns cheap, abundant coal into a clean source of energy and that capturing so much carbon is the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off Canada’s roads.
But clean is relative. First, the Boundary Dam generator uses the dirtiest form of coal, lignite. And, like the FutureGen project, it can capture only 90 percent of the fuel’s carbon exhaust, meaning 150 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour escape from the plant, about the same as supposedly clean-burning natural gas.
The SaskPower project also suffers from the same financial impediments that have plagued U.S. efforts in Illinois and Mississippi. MIT’s Herzog says these problems are partly due to a lack of incentives from Washington.
And even in Canada, the Boundary Dam project probably couldn’t have succeeded unless it was designed to pay for itself by using the captured carbon to help force from(?) oil fields that are stingy about yielding their resources.
Still, the Boundary Dam project has given a victory of sorts to Saskatchewan over neighboring Alberta. Six years ago, Alberta’s provincial government announced a $2 billion investment in four CCS projects, but since then, two of the efforts have been abandoned. The province’s new premier, Jim Prentice, seems less than enthusiastic about CCS.
“Carbon capture and storage is a very expensive way to reduce emissions,” Prentice said. Nevertheless, he said, he’s letting the two remaining projects proceed.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com