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Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam carbon capture project is less environmental than ideological

Canadian Stock News Cantech

When it opened in October 2014, Saskatchewan’s $1.5 billion Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant was being watched by the world as a flagship demonstration of an exciting new frontier in cleantech innovation.

Despite all of our rhetoric about getting off fossil fuels, the reality is that a huge percentage of energy remains coal-generated and will be for some time to come.

So it makes some kind of sense that carbon capture and storage should be implemented on the world’s remaining coal plants in order to mitigate their harm as effectively as possible, while doing as much as possible to shift to renewables in the meantime.

However, evaluating whether the Saskatchewan government’s decision to double down on clean coal, rather than to dedicate itself to more aggressively pursuing renewables, has been clouded by a series of bumps in the road, combined with perhaps a more pertinent question relating to whether choosing this project was driven more by ideology than a decision-making process based on best outcomes.

A year after its opening, the main question being asked about the Boundary Dam project is, basically, what went wrong?

Not particularly because of the technology itself, but because of all kinds of extraneous scandals, failures to launch, and squabbles between key players in what has become a protracted soap opera, including a pay dispute between SaskPower and SNC-Lavelin.

A lot of stink in the media has also been kicked up about SaskPower’s CCS point man, Micheal Monea, and his travel expenses, almost $400,00 over four years, traveling to places like Japan, China, Poland and Peru, all countries that still heavily rely on coal.

For the sake of argument, let’s say those places are worth traveling to, given that since the CCS technology is being developed anyway, it makes sense to forge relations with other coal-burning countries in the name of exporting a made-in-Saskatchewan solution.

But China is now forging its own path, driven mainly by extreme pollution presenting a clear and present health hazard to its population and environment.

Air pollution in China finally led the government in September of 2013 to commit to a 1.7 yuan ($363 billion Cdn.) plan to reduce both coal and traffic emissions, with the aim of reducing PM2.5 levels by 25% by 2017.

“Coal is reliable and the costs are stable.” – Michael Monea, President, Carbon Capture & Storage Initiatives, SaskPower

Back in Saskatchewan, the question remains. Is carbon capture and storage worth pursuing?  Did Saskatchewan make the right choice, given the options it had in front of it when it decided to pursue CCS?

Or was the government’s choice basically ideological?

It’s clear now that in choosing carbon capture and storage for coal generation, the government of Saskatchewan demonstrated its commitment to fossil fuels.

Ontario, by contrast, shut down its last coal-fired power plant just a few months before the opening of Boundary Dam’s CCS project, a similarly ideological decision, albeit from a different angle.

In October, Michael Monea published “SaskPower’s Case for Carbon Capture and Storage” in Cornerstone, the official journal of the world coal industry.

“Coal is reliable and the costs are stable,” he writes. “Centuries’ worth of coal reserves lie under Saskatchewan and are an important part of the province’s economy. Thus, coal is an attractive energy source for SaskPower as we have a plentiful supply near our three coal-fired power stations.”

Practically speaking, coal is going to be with us for a long time to come. So any prospect of mitigating coal’s harmful effects with the ultimate goal of phasing it out as completely is worth pursuing.

But Monea’s defense makes clear that Saskatchewan’s decision to double down on coal, rather than to put those resources into developing renewables, for which the province is ideally suited, was more a decision based on short-term concerns and pleasing particular constituencies than thinking about the future.

Launching the Boundary Dam CCS project in October 2014
Launching the Boundary Dam CCS project in October 2014

He seems to be saying, much like his premier, let’s not forget how much this province owes to the fossil fuel industry.

Even from a financial perspective, Monea’s assessment of the project, written less than a year after its launch, can’t conceal that Boundary Dam CCS is a loss.

So without a credible economic justification, and without any further compelling reason for doubling down on coal other than preserving the status quo, what’s clear is that Saskatchewan chose coal for reasons of convenience and way of life.

Monea points out that over the three year construction timeline, “Approximately 1700 contractors and employees of SaskPower worked continuously for a total of nearly five million man-hours.”

So jobs, basically. Jobs that could have been deployed in the cleantech sector.

Imagine what could have been accomplished if those resources, $1.5 billion, and those jobs had been allocated to developing wind, solar and geothermal, for which Saskatchewan is as ideally suited as any place in Canada.

Saskatchewan has the highest photovoltaic potential in the country, making it ideal for solar development.

The prairie landscape is also, no surprise, ideal for wind energy. Likewise for geothermal.

Over 70% of Saskatchewan’s energy now comes from non-renewable sources, mainly coal-fired power stations and natural gas.

With less than one-third the population of Alberta, Saskatchewan is still the third largest coal producing province in Canada, with higher per capita emissions than Alberta and more than three times the national per capita emissions average.

The Boundary Dam Power Station is the largest coal-generated thermal electric power plant in Canada.

So if this technology is going to be developed and exported to other coal-burning nations, it would make sense to test it at this particular plant.

The issue is one of making wrong decisions based on ideology. Ontario made a choice regarding its coal-fired power stations in 2013. Saskatchewan decided to go down a different path.

In hindsight, it’s easy enough to Monday-morning-quarterback any situation. A wrong decision is a wrong decision, and pointing it out after the fact is easy to do.

But it’s useful, too, to use these cases to make the right choices for the future.

The Saskatchewan government and SaskPower, responding to the poor optics projected by jurisdictions who drag their feet on fossil fuels in light of the COP21 conference, not to mention recent federal greenhouse gas regulations, announced their intention at the end of November to generate 50% of Saskatchewan’s energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Given their commitment to riding out the Boundary Dam CCS project, that’s probably the least they can do.

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