Overcoming Trouble at SaskPower's Carbon Capture Project in Canada

When it opened in October 2014, SaskPower’s $1.5 billion Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant was the world's flagship demonstration on the frontier of clean-tech innovation.

The new technology was supposed to allow the utility to continue using hundreds of years of cheap coal reserves buried nearby.

“It’s a low-cost, stable supply,” Mike Marsh, SaskPower's CEO and utility mainliner, told the New York Times. He added that,"There’s a tremendous opportunity in North America to continue to utilize coal.”

The new process seemed like a panacea when the project was first developed 11 years ago.

Multiple shutdowns

After all, it offered a way to stick with dirty coal in an increasingly carbon-conscious era. It was especially attractive after rising emissions from the Canada's energy-intensive tar sands trumped Ontario’s complete shutdown of its coal-fired electrical generation.

But the plant has stumbled through multiple shutdowns and fallen far short of its CO2 capture targets.

Only 400,000 tons of CO2 were captured during the past year, roughly 40 percent of the rated capacity of the one-million-ton-per-year plant.

This caused SaskPower to miss CO2 deliveries to Cenovus Energy, the Canadian oil company that signed a 10-year contract to buy most of the gas to use for enhanced oil recovery.  

It had to pay $7 million in penalties, nearly nullifying the original reason for greenlighting the risky project in the first place.

Lingering problems

After extended maintenance in the fall, the utility said that it had solved several problems plaguing the project, which included replacing a huge, leaking, six-story tank that holds the amine solution used in the carbon capture process.

The utility also claimed to have finally achieved nameplate capacity of 3,240 tons of CO2 per day from Nov. 14-16.

Now the plant operates at 85 percent capacity and aims to capture 800,000 tons per year of CO2 reliably and cost-effectively.

“Since we’ve come back from our overhaul, our total delivery for November was around 60,000 tons,” the best month to date, Howard Matthews, vice president of power production, told the Regina Leader-Post.

“I won’t kid you, there are still problems and issues, but…we’ve really made some good progress," he reassured ratepayers.

An expert weighs in

Fortunately, if Mr. Matthews makes you skeptical, there's a well-researched report that helps to explain many of the technical and logistical issues.

With a Ph.D and degrees in engineering and chemistry, Carolyn Preston, principal of CKP Associates of Calgary, studied Boundary Dam last summer for the International Energy Agency.

Preston’s full 108-page report was presented to the IEA Greenhouse Gas (GHG) program’s Post Combustion CCS symposium in Regina last September. Preston also presented a webinar condensed from her report (watch the webinar here).

While explaining the project's 30 year timeline, she concluded that the project:

can be considered a success. It has proven to the world that commercial-scale carbon dioxide capture at a coal-fired generation station is possible, rather than an elusive future option.

But she also contends SaskPower and the government knew — or should have known  — that the project would take two or three years to reach full capacity and that some of the start-up problems could have been anticipated.

Nevertheless, SaskPower’s "bold decision" to proceed with CCS before amine solvent technology was fully commercialized will be vindicated. 

Preston’s report says that SaskPower’s rushed decision was partially driven by proposed federal regulations requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce GHG emissions. 

As a result, SaskPower was forced to:

select the commercially unproven CANSOLV amine capture process. This lead to a number of problems that confronted SaskPower during the project’s design, construction and commissioning phases. 

In fact, she said that contaminated amine solvent has had to be shipped to Ontario to be “reclaimed” before being returned for reuse. 

But she felt that SaskPower was well on its way to meeting the associated challenges, and she concurs with SaskPower executives that the setbacks were typical problems that come with any new and complex technology. 

Fortunately, over time, as more countries engage in CCS technologies, the price will drop.

Will other utilities finally use this technology?