The world’s first commercial-scale “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) project is set to launch this week at a coal-fired power plant in Canada. The $1.4 billion development marks a major milestone for the fledgling technology, which is seen as critical for cutting global warming pollution from fossil fuels.
The Boundary Dam facility in Saskatchewan province will be formally commissioned Thursday, says the plant’s operator SaskPower, an electric utility.
The 110-megawatt facility will eventually capture about 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted from the adjacent coal plant; that captured gas will then be injected into nearby oilfields to help boost petroleum production. While a handful of smaller pilot CCS projects are already up and running worldwide, Boundary Dam is the largest yet, capable of capturing around 1 million metric tons of carbon per year -- or roughly 0.2 percent of Canada’s total annual emissions, SaskPower said.
The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based energy watchdog, hailed the project launch as “a momentous point” in the decades-long effort to develop CCS. “As fossil fuel consumption is expected to continue for decades, deployment of CCS is essential,” Maria van der Hoeven, the agency’s executive director, said in a statement Wednesday. “CCS is the only known technology that will enable us to continue to use fossil fuels and also decarbonize the energy sector.”
The agency estimates that of all the total emissions reductions needed globally by 2050 to avert catastrophic climate change, one-sixth of those cuts should come from CCS at power plants and other industrial operations such as gas processing and steel and fertilizer production. Without the technology, more than two-thirds of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves would have to stay in the ground in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming, including significantly higher sea levels, more frequent and intense storms and extreme weather patterns, according to IEA's analysis.
Globally, about two dozen CCS projects for power plants are in the planning stages, including three in the United States. Two more U.S. facilities are under construction in Mississippi and Texas.
Nearly all of the projects, however, have been plagued with long delays and significant cost overruns. Mississippi Power’s project in Kemper County, for instance, is projected to cost $5.6 billion -- more than twice as much as initially forecast. Construction began in 2010, though the facility isn’t slated to start operations until mid-2015. Last year, Norway’s government halted a full-scale CCS project at the Mongstad oil refinery, citing high costs and technical challenges.
Critics of CCS argue that energy companies and government agencies shouldn’t be plowing tens of billions of dollars into projects that extend the burning of polluting fossil fuels. Instead, the money would be better spent on improving renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power and making the zero-emissions sources easier and cheaper to use.
CCS is “a waste of vital capital that should be invested in conservation, efficiency and renewable [energy],” John Bennett, director of Sierra Club in Canada, told The Canadian Press this week. “It doesn’t get us off fossil fuels. We can no longer talk in terms of using less of them; we have to be working towards eliminating them.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, acknowledges that CCS is one of a range of cleaner technologies that could reduce carbon pollution in the electric power sector, which is the single largest contributor to U.S emissions. But it says long-term strategies that rely heavily on CCS for cutting emissions “are more expensive than scenarios that rely on energy efficiency and renewables,” according to a recent report.
Carbon-capture proponents said they hope the launch of Canada’s Boundary Dam can help silence the skeptics and show that CCS belongs in a future low-carbon energy sector. “Boundary Dam is working proof for naysayers … that full-scale CCS on power generation now exists and works commercially to deliver electricity, with no subsidy,” Stuart Haszeldine, director of Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage, told the Guardian. The plant’s opening could “create ripples worldwide,” he said.