Can this coal plant stop climate change?

A Canadian utility opened the doors on the world's first commercial-scale coal plant to capture and store its carbon emissions. If the project and others like it are successful, carbon capture and storage technology could play a major role in fighting climate change.

SaskPower/Reuters
Boundary Dam Power Station owned by SaskPower near Estevan, Sask. Canada launched the world's first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project at the plant Thursday – a change designed to cut 90 percent of the plant's carbon emissions.

What if you could have all the energy benefits of cheap, plentiful coal, without the planet-warming gases it emits into the atmosphere?  

That dream got a boost Thursday, as Canada’s Boundary Dam plant became the world’s first large-scale coal power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions. The $1.2 billion SaskPower project aims to capture 90 percent of the Estevan, Sask. plant’s emissions, or about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That’s the equivalent of removing 250,000 cars from the road, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute.

While many look to carbon-free sources like wind and solar to rein in ballooning emissions, analysts say the most practical solutions to climate change will require carbon capture and storage (CCS). Renewables are expanding at a rapid pace across the world, but coal continues to dominate global electricity supply, playing a major role in the development of rapidly growing economies in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Widespread carbon capture technology could go a long way toward meeting worldwide emissions reductions goals, even if the developing world continues to rely on coal.

But there’s a catch: the technology has so far proven expensive and difficult to implement on commercial coal-fired plants. The SaskPower project aims to demonstrate how it might be done better.

“It’s globally significant,” says John Thompson, director of the Fossil Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based non-profit. “I believe that once these projects happen, the landscape is changed forever.” Proving CCS is commercially-viable shifts public perception, Mr. Thompson says, and could make carbon-heavy coal plants a thing of the past.

SaskPower isn’t alone. US energy firm NRG broke ground earlier this month on a $1 billion carbon capture project near Houston. The company aims to have it up and running in 2016. Another CCS project in Kemper County, Mississippi hopes to start up in May 2015.   

CCS is critical if coal hopes to remain a viable source of energy in the US and elsewhere. Carbon intensive coal is an easy target for governments in the UK, US, Canada, and elsewhere as they tackle runaway emissions that threaten to increase global temperatures. CCS might offer a way for coal firms to meet those existing or new carbon limits, but it’s no silver bullet.

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“The technologies that we’re bringing together aren’t revolutionary,” says Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative in Cambridge, Mass. CCS has long been used in smaller industrial plants and has been piloted on coal plants elsewhere. “To show that they can all fit together and work well is a major milestone, but not necessarily a game-changer.”

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, announced in June, aims to slash US emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But Obama’s regulations encourage a switch to cleaner-burning natural gas, Mr. Herzog says, rather than spurring investments in CCS technology that would make coal cleaner. Booming US natural gas production and corresponding low prices have made gas an attractive alternative to coal.

What would make CCS competitive with natural gas, and commercially-viable on a large scale? For Mr. Herzog, the answer is policy to actively incentivize CCS deployment. “We don’t have policy in place to bring the hundreds of [CCS] plants that we need to put a dent in climate change,” Herzog says in a telephone interview Thursday.

Natural gas has a cost advantage in much of Canada, too. The Boundary Dam plant only installed CCS after Canada implemented emissions limits similar to Obama’s proposed plan. And sticking with coal made sense at the plant because its in a coal-rich region, Herzog says; much of Canada will switch to other fuel to meet emissions standards, rather than retrofitting coal plants with CCS.

The potential to sell off captive emissions for use in “enhanced oil recovery” – the process of injecting carbon dioxide into oil wells to coax out extra crude – also helped make the Boundary Dam project economically feasible.

But enhanced oil recovery isn’t an option everywhere, and retrofitting a plant with CCS technology remains expensive. That means the technology may not have a longterm future in the US, where firms are already shifting to natural gas or renewables.

“The reality here in the US is, with the [natural] gas price so low, no one’s going to build a new coal plant,” Herzog says.

Across the world, it’s a different picture. The technology could prove useful for China, India, and others that are meeting enormous energy demands with plentiful stores of the carbon-heavy fuel.

“People are pretty optimistic,” Herzog says. “Worldwide, within a few years, we could see five capture and storage plants.”

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