SaskPower president and CEO Rupen Pandya, left and CIC Minister Don Morgan, in Regina on Sept. 20, announcing two possible sites for nuclear power development in Saskatchewan. Screen capture by Brian Zinchuk

 

REGINA – Since the opening of the Boundary Dam Unit 3 Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project in late 2014, Saskatchewan’s coal-fired power industry, and Estevan in particular, has been waiting for a clear message from the provincial government whether it would pursue additional carbon capture projects. To date, nothing has come forward, but the minister responsible indicated on Sept. 20 it would not happen.

Hanging in the balance is the future of both Coronach and Estevan, with the Poplar River Power Station at Coronach, Boundary Dam and Shand Power Stations at Estevan, their respective coal mines, workforces and communities.

On Sept. 20, the clearest indication to date came from the Minister of Crown Investment Corp. Don Morgan. The most recent cabinet shuffle placed all the major Crown corporations, including SaskPower, under one ministry under Morgan. His statements during an announcement on two possible sites for small modular reactor locations did not bode well for the future of coal in this province.

In making the announcement regarding SMRs in March 28, Morgan said they could cost up to $5 billion each, although on Sept. 20 there were references it could be lower, between $3 and $4 billion. Asked by Pipeline Online if it would be cheaper and a lot faster to implement carbon capture on Boundary Dam and Shand Power Stations, Morgan replied, “The federal government’s clean electricity standards would not allow for any further expansion or usage of fossil fuel. The contrary, there’s time limits as to how long things are there. So we intend to continue to work with the federal government and look at extending the life of some of the existing assets that are there. But an expansion, in those things at this point in time, does not fit with the federal government requirements.”

Asked if any new carbon capture with coal is basically off the table due to federal regulations, Morgan said, “Right now, it’s not an option to us under the under the federal Clean Standard regulations.”

 

Boundary Dam Unit 3’s performance hasn’t stacked up

While Boundary Dam 3 has been functioning for most of the last eight years, it did have teething problems, and never lived up to initial promises of capturing one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Indeed, its cumulative collection since startup is just shy of 60 per cent of that initial promise.

As SaskToday.ca reported on April 15, 2022, “In the previous 12 months, the facility was online for 40.4 per cent of the time, and captured an average of 30,642 tonnes of CO2 per month. It went through a scheduled shutdown last June and July (2021), and shortly after it came back online, it encountered multiple issues, including a compressor motor failure that took it offline for more than two months.

“The average daily capture when CCS was online was 2,364 tonnes per day with a peak one-day capture of 2,982 tonnes.”

On July 22, SaskPower’s blog about the project said 4,589,251 tonnes of CO2 had been captured since operational startup in 2014. Over the 7.75 years of operation, that works out to an average of 592,161 tonne per year.

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Boundary Dam 4 and 5 were first clue

The first major indication that SaskPower would not be pursuing additional carbon capture with its coal plants came when the decision was made not to implement it on Boundary Dam Units 4 and 5, both 150 megawatt units. However, those two units are now considered smaller scale, as 300 megawatt-scale units – Poplar River Units 1 and 2, Boundary Dam Unit 6 and Shand Power Station are the standard for larger size power generation in this province. Recent natural gas-fired power stations at Swift Current and Moose Jaw are similar in scale, around 350 megawatts each. Thus, SaskPower not proceeding with carbon capture on the smaller Boundary Dam Units 4 and 5 were not dealbreakers, yet.

And indeed, even though Boundary Dam Unit 4 was supposedly retired in December last year, due to federal regulations, it has been called back into service several times this year to meet Saskatchewan’s power demands.

The big question was always whether the larger 300 megawatt units would be upgraded to carbon capture. In particular, the International CCS Knowledge Centre, funded in part by SaskPower, released a study in November, 2018, which noted, “a CCS system at Shand could see capture capital cost reductions of 67 per cent per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) captured as well as 92 per cent in potential savings to power plant integration capital cost.” It would be designed to capture two million tonnes of CO2 per year, double what Boundary Dam 3 was supposed to do (but never achieved).

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Despite that study, which is now nearly four years old, SaskPower has not given any indications in that time it would pursue carbon capture implementation at Shand, nor Boundary Dam or Poplar River, for that matter.

The slides shown during the presentation did indicate a possibility for carbon capture on natural gas power generation, post-2030.

Morgan noted that the 300 megawatt size of SMRs “would be a good fit to plug into our existing grid,” as the are close in size to the larger natural gas power stations.

Keeping workforce

Conventional coal is supposed to shut down, according to federal regulations, by the end of 2029. But SaskPower does not envision the first SMR coming online until the mid-2030s. Asked if Estevan is chosen, how will SaskPower keep its workforce there from leaving in the interim, Morgan replied, “I think we have to do a lot of work to try and maintain the workforce that is there. I’ve been to Estevan, and I’ve met with a number of people there. I’ve met with some of the union leaders. And we want to make sure that we’re able to keep a strong, viable workforce there for whatever technology is being used or present, that keep keeping that workforce intact or close to whatever retraining is necessary is something that has to be front and centre for us as we move forward.”

If further carbon capture projects are not pursued, that will also limit the expansion of enhanced oil recovery using carbon dioxide in the region. And if SaskPower choses to shut down coal entirely, including Boundary Dam Unit 3, it would mean an end to supplying the Whitecap Resources-operated Weyburn Unit with CO2 from that facility.

 

Watch for additional in-depth coverage on small modular reactors coming soon from Pipeline Online.

 

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