Alberta is full of burnable energy, and global demand for it won’t wane soon enough. Unfortunately, we can’t simply shut off the planet-poisoning spigot while waiting for scalable renewables — we have to put the poison somewhere safe.
Fortunately, Alberta is also full of safe places to store carbon, and the government and private industry are innovating ways to pump our increasing output back into the ground.
The Alberta Government’s 2022 budget report touts Alberta’s industrial carbon pricing framework, in place since 2007, as having reduced “almost 175 million tonnes” of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as of January 2020, and oil sands companies collectively reducing “emissions intensity per barrel” by almost 30 per cent since 2010. Welcome reductions all, but “emission intensity” is the volume of emissions per unit of GDP, which means that, as GDP grows, so do total emissions — regardless of their per-barrel potency. As Alberta’s GDP has steadily increased since 2000, its total GHG emissions have increased 17 per cent since 2005.
The Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) Regulation started in 2007 — it’s the “carbon pricing framework” mentioned in the 2022 budget. It sets GHG pricing regulation and emission benchmarks, and has funnelled $131 million into Alberta’s Industrial Energy Efficiency and Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage program, $100 million of which is already going towards seven projects around Alberta that are estimated to cut almost three million tonnes of emissions by 2030, and create 2,200 jobs.
TIER also funds Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), a not-for-profit organization that invests in “clean technology solutions that reduce GHGs, lower costs, attract investment, and create jobs in Alberta.” In response to companies seeking permission to procure provincial “pore space”— underground geological formations that can safely store carbon — ERA turned it into a carbon capture kickstart funding competition. It’s funded with another $30 million to support pre-construction and design.
“What we want to see is a plan for what happens to the carbon dioxide after it’s captured at very large-scale industrial facilities,” says ERA Chief Strategy Officer and professional engineer Mark Summers P.Eng. “We want to see what the plan is in order to transport the CO2 and ultimately sequester the CO2. This is very specifically for the engineering and design work, not construction or commissioning costs. With $30 million, we can make a lot happen in terms of engineering design, and we’re very well positioned to create a knowledge base that can be shared across the province and the country.”
Companies have captured carbon for decades — including Alberta projects like the Shell Quest Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Project near Fort Saskatchewan, which was launched in 2012 — so no one is starting from scratch. The innovation comes in doing it more efficiently. Summers points to technology ERA has already funded, like cryogenic carbon capture (separating CO2 from lighter gasses through intense cooling, pressurization and warm- ing), solid sorbents (material passed through a gas stream that attracts and holds CO2), and molten carbonate fuel cells (which convert CO2 and natural gas into electricity and heat), as innovative examples that drive down cost and up efficiency. But ERA’s most innovative aspect may be its ability as a non-profit to absorb risk and share knowledge. Every project ERA funds requires a comprehensive report to be made publicly available and shared across the industry. And it’s specifically beefed up the knowledge-sharing requirements of the carbon capture kickstart funding competition because, Summers says, “we’re funding engineering and design studies which may or may not translate into actual projects that require, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars of capital in order to move ahead with.”
Innovation is risky, and private industry is risk-averse. So in order to take on risks that otherwise wouldn’t happen, or to accelerate some innovation that would otherwise happen years down the road, ERA shares the risk with industry.
“We don’t take an equity share in the organization,” Summers says. “We don’t demand payback of our dollars. But in exchange we require the information to be made publicly available. What we want to see is the accrual of benefits to the province of Alberta.”
One of the competition’s biggest applications is a joint venture from Enbridge and Capital Power Corporation, which plan to repower parts of Capital’s Genesee Generating Station near Warburg to capture, convert and store up to three million tonnes of CO2 annually, transported through Enbridge pipes, which could also serve other local industrial companies.
“You need a shared solution,” says Adam Chalkley, director, low carbon development at Enbridge. “That’s why we came together with a plan that allows for multiple emitters to move forward with their capture projects. We look at the hub as an enabler for those capture projects because they can design the right capture facility onto their specific asset. And then we take care of how to move it and permanently store it underground for multiple companies.”
The Genesee generating station consists of three coal plants. The coal burners in one of them will be switched to natural gas, and two others will be refurbished with new gas turbines. “When you smash all that together, you get what we call a natural gas combined cycle train, which is very efficient, and provides a lower emitting baseload type of generation, which is really important with carbon capture,” says Capital Power Director, Commercial Management and Carbon Technologies, Breanne Fox.
Baseload means reliability, and reliability means electricity, Fox explains. When the day comes when Alberta relies in part on wind energy, and it happens to be perfectly calm for those few days in late summer, the repowered Genesee station will provide safe, efficient baseload power.
Capital Power converting from coal to gas is itself a massive reduction in carbon emissions. Capturing the reduced CO2 emissions is the next big step. “We’re not interested in a science experiment,” Fox says. “We’re talking about capturing upwards of three million tonnes of CO2 annually. The existing sites that you see in Canada are about a million tonnes — we’re talking triple that size. It will arguably be the largest in the world.”
It’s only a start, but it’s a crucial tool for our species to take its one shot at undoing the damage done over the past two industrial centuries. “We need gigaton solutions,” says ERA’s Summers. “And carbon capture storage is one of them. From a mitigation perspective, global greenhouse gas emissions are somewhere in the order of 50 gigatons on an annual basis. There’s no single solution to this challenge, but when talking about these and further commercial carbon capture projects, Alberta is getting up into the tens and potentially even hundreds of megatons, which is a massive scale of operation.”
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Edify