Viewpoint: First CCS Project Off to Rocky Start

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Many energy industry leaders have great hopes that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will allow natural gas and coal to march forward under the low-carbon economy, rather than become the enemy. However, CCS is off to a slow start. The world's first commercial-scale CCS plant, SaskPower's Boundary Dam, went into operation in Canada in 2014 with much fanfare, following a number of pilot-stage projects (see table). Although the Canadian project was touted as a success, recent revelations indicate it has faced a number of technical, financial and political hurdles. Although it's unclear if these problems are endemic across the industry, Boundary Dam's rocky beginnings represent another stumbling block for the technology's evolution -- with the UK, for instance, having recently pulled the plug on critical funding for two CCS projects planned in its borders (NE Oct.8'15). For such a revolutionary project, Boundary Dam is fairly straightforward. An existing 110-megawatt coal-fired plant near Estevan, Saskatchewan, was retrofitted with equipment designed to trap around 1 million tons of CO2 annually. A portion of that captured CO2 is sold to Cenovus Energy, which uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the nearby Weyburn oil field. The remaining CO2 is injected into a saline aquifer a mile below the surface. The problems that have plagued the $1 billion project have resulted in misleading messages from SaskPower and Saskatchewan's Conservative government. In February, a SaskPower release quoted Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall as saying Boundary Dam was exceeding performance expectations. But in September, SaskPower put out another release saying the CCS project had captured 400,000 tons of CO2 -- less than half the plant's million-ton annual capacity. The reasons behind this apparent discrepancy were made clear in late October when the opposition New Democratic Party leaked internal SaskPower documents pointing ti technical problems that resulted in the project being shut down for long periods. One internal memo stated the CCS unit had been operating at 45% of its rated capacity since opening, and according to subsequent statements by SaskPower Chief Executive Mike Marsh, that might have been generous. "It is capable of achieving 90% capture when we have all the other pieces of equipment working," Marsh said. Boundary Dam project developers also touted the potential to sell the CO2 for EOR, but that hasn't worked out as expected, either. Because it hasn't supplied contracted volumes of CO2, SaskPower racked up C$12 million (US$8.85 million) in penalties to oil sands buyer Cenovus in 2014 and owed an estimated C$5 million in penalties last year, both eating into the C$11 million in annual revenues being paid by Cenovus for the CO2. As for the future, the Boundary Dam CCS unit emerged from a lengthy maintenance shutdown in early November and is said to have achieved nameplate capacity from Nov. 14-16. The plant's goal is to operate at 85% capacity and capture 800,000 tons of CO2 in 2016. However, that could be a stretch for the time being. Even if things go swimmingly, there are five- to six-day planned outages for cleaning and maintenance on the calendar every six to 10 weeks for years to come. Also, the plant must shut down so the acid plant -- needed to capture and process sulfur dioxide -- can be completed. This part of the project has been waiting as SaskPower wrestled with more pressing problems with the CCS unit. But the real issue is why problems at the plant were seemingly covered up. Rolling out a complex technology is bound to entail unforeseen problems and glitches that SaskPower and the government should have aired honestly and promptly, if only to warn other developers of the types of kinks that must be ironed out. Tom Haywood, Editor, Natural Gas Week Global CCS Projects Project Name Location Operation

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