World’s first ‘clean coal’ commercial power plant opens in Canada

The world’s first commercial coal-fired power plant that can capture its carbon dioxide emissions officially launched today in Canada — marking a milestone for ‘clean coal’ technology.

The Boundary Dam project, in Saskatchewan, aims to capture and sell around 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year — up to 90% of the emissions of one of its refitted power units — to oil company Cenovus Energy, which will pipe the compressed gas deep underground to flush out stubborn oil reserves. Unsold gas will be hived off to the Aquistore research project. (If you’re curious to know what a carbon capture facility looks like, SaskPower provides a virtual tour of the power station.)

As noted in a Nature article about the scheme in April, carbon-dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technology doesn’t come cheap. The Boundary Dam refit will cost Can$1.3 billion (US$1.2 billion), has depended on $240 million in government subsidies, and SaskPower — the sole electricity supplier in the province — hopes that regulators will grant it a 15.5% increase on electricity prices over the next three years. But the hope is that engineers can learn from the experience how to install the technology at lower cost.

CCS-plants-map

The Canadian project is just the first of what will need to be thousands of clean coal plants by 2050 to put a significant dent in emissions. (Coal-burning alone produced 15 billion tonnes of CO2 worldwide in 2012, 43% of the world’s total). On current timetables, the world is nowhere close to achieving this: the technology is just too expensive, and so far there’s been no political will to tax fossil fuels on the basis of their emissions, which would be an incentive for clean coal.

In 2009, the IEA published a road map calling for 100 large CCS projects by 2020, but in July 2013, with projects failing to materialize, it downgraded that to just 30. And even that is ambitious.

Still, one has to start somewhere. Around a dozen projects are already storing carbon dioxide at the million-tonne scale, mostly extracted from natural-gas processing plants, and the Saskatchewan ribbon-cutting today marks the first time that a commercial, grid-connected coal plant has adopted the technology. A newly built advanced coal plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, designed to store 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, was to open this year but has been delayed to 2015.

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