Saskatchewan’s carbon capture falls short of expectations, report says

A flagship carbon capture and storage project in Saskatchewan remains short of emissions reduction targets, raising questions about the technology’s profitability, a report says.

“We don’t think carbon capture works as well as the industry and proponents claim,” said David Schissel, an analyst who wrote the report for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an international nonprofit agency.

“We don’t think it’s a good use of money to keep coal-fired power plants running.”

Schissel analyzed data from Sask Power’s Boundary Dam project, a coal-fired power plant in southeastern Saskatchewan that began capturing carbon dioxide emissions in the fall of 2014.

Proponents originally said the plant would capture up to 90 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions. That would be equivalent to about a million tons of carbon dioxide a year, the rough equivalent of the emissions of 200,000 cars.

That goal has never been achieved, Schissel said.

When all plant emissions are taken into account, including flue gases that are simply vented, the average capture rate is 57 percent, he said.

A 2022 report presented at an international conference on carbon capture supports the findings.

“(The project) has not sustained design pace beyond a dedicated capability demonstration completed in 2015,” the report from the CCS International Knowledge Center in Regina says.

#Saskatchewan Border Dam carbon capture project is underperforming, report says. #SKPoli #SaskPower #CCS #CarbonCapture #BoundaryDam

The report says capture is limited both by technical issues and by demand for carbon dioxide from the energy industry, which uses the gas to extract more oil from depleting reserves.

The plant’s capture rate has improved, although it is still below one million tons.

Knowledge Center spokesman Grady Semmens said Schissel’s analysis is “generally correct.”

He said the plant has managed to keep almost six million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Additionally, he said almost all of the CO2 is separated from the emissions that are sent through the capture facility.

“For a variety of technical and economic reasons… the facility (Boundary Dam) has not operated at full capacity, which has impacted the total volume of CO2 captured over the past 10 years,” Semmens wrote in an email. “This does not mean that the project was not successful.

“It has provided valuable experiences and lessons that we are now actively applying to the next generation of CAC projects.”

SaskPower spokesperson Scott McGregor said the facility continues to improve. He said the team was online for almost the first three months of 2024, its best performance yet.

“The knowledge we have gained at our (carbon capture) facilities has also made SaskPower a resource for the development of (such) projects in a wide range of industries outside of power generation, such as cement manufacturing, oil and gas production and chemical processing,” he said in an email.

But Schissel said that to live up to its proponents’ promises, carbon capture has to work nearly perfectly all the time.

“If you’re going to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing CO2, you have to capture almost all of the emissions and you have to do it year after year for decades.”

“Carbon capture has not done what its proponents claimed it would do.”

Other carbon capture projects have yet to meet their stated goals.

Since 2015, Shell’s Quest project near Edmonton has stored nine million tonnes of CO2 at a lower cost than planned. But its 77 percent capture rate is still lower than the 90 percent originally announced.

On Wednesday, Capital Power CEO Avik Dey said the company would no longer pursue its $2.4 billion carbon capture project at its Genesee power plant.

“Basically, the economy is just not working,” he told analysts on a conference call. “Hopefully the technology will improve and we can revisit this when the economy improves.

“What it really is is that the technology is improving so that costs are going down. How do you actually build the kit to have higher efficiency and capture rates while also reducing capture costs?”

Alberta tar sands producers have estimated the cost of the first phase of carbon capture to the industry at $16 billion.

Schissel said carbon capture can be worth it in some circumstances, especially on a smaller scale. He said it remains questionable whether the technology can work at the level advocates suggest and questions whether it is the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions at large operations.

“In 20 years we may find that we didn’t capture as much CO2 as we needed and that we wasted a lot of money that could have been better spent.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2024.

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