First commercial-scale CCS imminent

The Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Canada is to be the first such facility to launch carbon capture and storage on a commercial scale. If successful it has implications for the continuing use of coal-fired power, without the emissions.

In the coming months, Canada’s biggest coal-fired plant will become the first power plant to achieve commercial scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the world.
Boundary Dam
Unit 3 of SaskPower's Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant emits 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually but from this summer, 90 per cent of that CO2 will instead be piped to the nearby Weyburn oilfield and Deadwater saline aquifer, and pumped several kilometres underground.

"The resulting 110 MW of power produced will be some of the world's most environmentally clean power from fossil fuels," SaskPower's Robert Watson told New Scientist.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that, to have a 50 per cent chance of avoiding 2 °C of global warming, which is probably too dangerous to adapt to, the energy sector can only emit 884 gigatonnes of CO2 between 2013 and 2050.

Burning proven reserves of coal, oil and gas would release 2860 Gt. So the agency’s research maintains that two-thirds of this must remain in the ground.

However the IEA also says we will build enough power plants by 2020 to burn our budget by 2050. "Climate change mitigation can and should start by lowering consumption and increasing energy efficiency," says Ruben Juanes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the site. "But the reality is that fossil fuels will continue to dominate the world's primary power for decades to come."

CCS works as follows. Exhaust from a power plant is passed through a solvent that binds to CO2. While the rest of the gas is vented, the CO2-rich solvent is drawn off and heated to release the gas. Then the CO2 can either be used or pumped underground, beneath impermeable layers of rock.

The Sask- project is a pivotal one for CCS but there are others to come in its wake.

Later this year, Kemper County power station in Mississippi will become the second CCS power station. It is a coal gasification plant, so will test CCS on a different energy source. And last week the UK announced funding to draw up detailed plans for full-scale CCS at the Peterhead power plant. That is a significant move: Peterhead is gas-fired and, while coal remains a major source of power in China, Europe and the US have been switching to gas.

Juanes and other experts say CCS is only a bridge technology. It could buy time to make the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. He studied 11 US saline aquifers, geological formations that could store CO2, and calculated that they could hold 100 years' worth of US emissions. The North Sea is said to have room for 100 years of European emissions.

CCS must also overcome the expensive nature of its technology.Adding chemical scrubbers to a power station uses about 20 per cent of its power output. Power companies are unlikely to pay that hefty cost without incentives.

However Stuart Haszeldine of the University of Edinburgh says a similar technology – scrubbing sulphur dioxide pollution from power station emissions – was once dismissed as impossibly expensive, but now runs on most power stations for little extra cost.

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