Canada has just fired up the world’s first full carbon-capture-and-storage (CC&S) coal fired power plant. Congratulations to Canada and SaskPower! They have taken one large step against climate change. SaskPower has turned on a refurbished Boundary Dam power plant near Estevan Canada. SaskPower opened the plant after spending $1.3 billion on the upgrade.
If you consider that we have been talking about carbon-capture-and-storage plants for decades. Every developed country that has coal-fired plants has spent many hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to trial these technologies. You wonder why it took so long to have the first working CC&S power plant?
There are an estimated 7000 coal-fired units worldwide with over 1200 new power plants planned for the next few years. The International Energy Agency estimates that CO2 emissions linked to the burning of fossil fuels was 33 gigatons in 2011. Some 42% or 13 gigatons was from the generation of electricity and heat. This CO2 pollution was mainly from coal fired power plants.
We are not going to replace all the coal-fired power plants anytime soon. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) however, stresses the need to make fundamental changes in how we burn coal to make it a much cleaner energy source. Turning coal-fired plants into clean or nearly clean sources of energy is absolutely essential if we are to make progress against climate change.
The Boundary Dam Plant is using an acid-base reaction or amine scrubbing. Using this methodology a recent article in the September 6, 2014 issue of Science News states, “The gas produced in burning coal – usually a mix of oxygen, water vapor, nitrogen, CO2 and other trace pollutants such as sulfur dioxide – is blasted through a 15-meter-tall, 30-meter-wide cylinder packed with layers of eggcrate-shaped material. The gas blows in at the bottom, while an amine solution – an alkaline liquid – pours down from the top. The solution trickles over the large surface area created by the grooves and ridges in the material packing the cylinder. The exhaust, now scrubbed of any CO2, vents out the top. Meanwhile, the CO2-bearing solution pools at the cylinder’s bottom before being sucked into another giant tower” where the mixture is boiled and releases a pure CO2 stream for capture. This CO2 can be captured, sold or transported underground for storage.
This is one of three major types of technology. This technology is called a postcombustion method where exhaust created by burning fuel is sent through silos to chemically scrub it of CO2 that is generally sent for storage in the ground. This technology has long been used in other industrial applications. Other methods include oxygen fuel combustion and precombustion.
Oxygen fuel combustion burns the fuel in pure oxygen, not normal air. This produces a CO2 and water vapor exhaust that are easy to separate. This technology unfortunately must use a considerable amount of energy in the initial air separation step.
Precombustion converts the fuel to a gassy mixture of CO2 and hydrogen. The two gasses are separated with the hydrogen moving a turbine and the CO2 sent underground for storage. This technology is very familiar since it is used in fertilizer, chemical and gaseous fuel and power production.
Other major projects that have cost a lot of money include the Jänschwalde, an aging power plant in Germany. In 2011 after having spent some $2 billion, local politics, public fears, and policy battles caused the program to close down before it even broke ground. Two billion dollars before even breaking ground!! This has been the ongoing history of expensive projects that have been cancelled. It is almost as if, after having spent literally billions of dollars, the powers that be are canceling a plant before any opportunity to trial something.
Power companies have been strong opponents of any requirement for new technologies. They have been successful in pressuring the U. S. government to postpone further requirements for major reductions in CO2 emissions due to adoption of these new technologies.
These interests pressured the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year to forego its requirement that new power plants come equipped with these carbon capture and storage technologies. This requirement was dropped from new rules that the EPA announced in June of this year.
Finally we have a demonstration, at scale, of one of the technologies the coal industry has been resisting. We still have an uphill battle to convince the governments of the world, that have been funding countless trials, to require their respective coal energy operators to embrace and adopt this technology. Only in this way can we begin to seriously combat climate change. We must thank Canada and the local power company, SaskPower, for completing its power plant conversion and providing an actual test of one of the technologies.
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