These PhD students will be among the leaders developing carbon capture and storage around the world. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

ESTEVAN – The next generation of scientists and engineers dealing with carbon capture have made their way, once again, to Saskatchewan, to learn about first large scale implementation of carbon capture on a coal-fired power facility. This past week, the week-long summer school was learning about ground zero for carbon capture and storage (CCS), SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Unit 3 Carbon Capture and Storage project.

Tim Dixon is general manager for the IEAGHG, or International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas programme. He has a degree in physics and an MBA, and he joined the students in their tour of Estevan facilities on Wednesday, July 12.

Dixon explained that the international carbon capture summer school has been going on for 15 years, but every second year it returns to Saskatchewan. Hosting it is a joint effort between the Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC), International CCS Knowledge Centre, and SaskPower.

“We want to try and help the next generation of professionals to be informed on carbon capture and storage,” he said. “My organization is an international research organization, not for profit, funded by 35 countries and companies. As well as funding research and studies and reports and the biggest conference of CCS. We realized in 2006, there was not a summer school-type course for CCS. CCS is this multidisciplinary technology. We need chemical engineers on end. We need mechanical engineers to build things. You need civil engineers, and you need geologists to do the storage side, and the policymakers and regulators. So it’s very multidisciplinary.

“So we put together the first course that puts it all together, all week long, quite intensive. And that was 2007 was the first summer school. This is now the 15th. And why we’re here is because this is a really good place to bring international students. So we got 32 students from 17 countries this year, we had 200 applications. It’s a very popular.”

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The students are all graduate-level PhD students with a background in engineering, geo-technologies, socio-economics. This can also include those in the early stages of their career within five years of graduation currently seeking a greater understanding of CCS. There are no fees associated with the Summer School attendance and accommodation and food will be covered by the hosts and sponsors. Students are expected to arrange their own travel expenses. Those sponsors include Shell, Total Energies, ExxonMobil, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and GassNova.

Up close and personal

He noted at some other locations, the closest they can get to the action is looking out of a bus window. At SaskPower’s complex at Estevan, the world’s first on a coal-fired power station, they are close and personal with the Boundary Dam 3 project, getting a detailed tour of the power plant and capture plant, the Aquistore disposal well, and the carbon capture test facility at Shand Power Station.

Dixon said, “We do go around the world. So last year, we were in Indonesia. Next year, we’ll be in Australia. But every other year, we come back here, because this is a really good place, the International CSS Knowledge Center are great hosts. SaskPower; great hosts. But best of all the students get to see a real project.”

Tim Dixon is general manager of the IEAGHG. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

EPA’s big proposal for CCS adoption

For much of the last decade, it looked like large carbon capture projects were going nowhere. But then this spring, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that all coal and natural gas-fired power station in that nation apply carbon capture by 2038, or shut down. And the success of Boundary Dam Unit 3 was specifically cited as a successful, working example.

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Asked about this, Dixon said he hadn’t read the EPA proposal yet, but said, “I think it’ll drive technology development. This was always the first. Thanks to this plant, we’ve learned a hell of a lot about really large amine capture plants. So, the world should be grateful to Saskatchewan for funding part of this plant. And we wouldn’t have built the learnings if we hadn’t built one of this scale to start with.”

Asked if the technology was ready for the big time, to apply it across the United States, Dixon replied, “I think we don’t have a choice. If we’re serious about climate change, it’s got to be done. And everyone that gets built, they’ll get better and better and better.”

Reluctance?

As for the reluctance for widespread adoption over the last ten years, he said, “That’s a really good question. I think because they’re quite large. It’s not like starting with wind turbines, or solar, photovoltaic. So the units are small, the R&D could be small, and then the scale up to one unit. And then many, many units.

“Carbon capture plants are big, and they are put on big sources of CO2 like this. So, it’s a bigger first step, to scale up. And they get associated with the fossil fuel industry, and some environmental NGOs don’t like that. They forget the climate science. It only matters what you put in the atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t care what you get out of the ground or leaving the ground, it cares what you put in the atmosphere. And this is a way of being able to use fossil fuels in the low carbon way.

“So I think their lobbying has given some politicians reasons to defer decisions. And I think that might have played into it as well. And what scares me is when we knew we could do this, about 10 years ago, 12 years ago, CO2, the atmosphere was 390 parts per million. Now, we’re 423, because we’ve not been building many of these. And we need to, we need to scale it by 100 times, if we’re going to meet the global climate goal, from what we got in the world at the moment, if we’re going to meet the Paris Agreement targets of limiting global warming, well, under two degrees, maybe 1.5. The IEA and the IPCC have their nice scenarios to the scale up of all the different technologies.”

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Renewables can’t cut it alone

As for wind and solar replacing coal and natural gas, Dixon said, “Even the International Renewable Energy Agency says renewables is 25 per cent of the energy sector, achieving net zero by 2050. They say carbon capture and storage is 20 per cent.”

“So it’s good to have renewables, but they can’t do it, on them alone.”

When asked about reliability, sustainability and affordability of electrical generation, and reliability trumping all, Dixon responded, “I think you’re absolutely right, on the supply of electricity. People take it for granted. And so much of our economy depends on it. And if we’re going to decarbonize, we’re gonna have even more the economy depending on it, as we move to electric vehicles, and we electrify other end uses as well.

“That’s all good. But we do need reliable sources of electricity.”

He pointed out that IRENA expects CCS on fossil fuel power about eight per cent and CCS with bioenergy is about 12 per cent of power generation.

“So even they say not everything can be done with renewables. So, your point about electricity supply, civilization is taken for granted as well. I think we see how easy it can break down. We have the war in Ukraine, between two developed countries, or one was invaded by the other. So the international rules based system we should not take for granted at all. So we do need to maintain electricity to enable civilization to continue as we know it.”

As for natural gas being a bridge fuel, Dixon said, “If we have enough of it, fine.”

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Biggest threat and reality checks

Asked about idealism, Dixon said it’s running into a reality check.

“The biggest threat is climate change. And I see that people don’t appreciate the scale and the magnitude of the risks, or the more than risks and uncertainties in there. So we do have to act on that.

“But I think with the drive to low carbon energy, people who take an energy supply for granted and not appreciate the energy security aspects. So the war in Ukraine, caused by Russia, has pushed up gas prices massively in Western Europe, as Russian gas supply was cut off with the embargoes. And that made countries realize they need to have their own indigenous power supply for energy security, for national security purposes.

“So, actually, renewables is good, in that sense. But it’s got the variability, as you say. Coal is good for those countries that have got it. Natural gas, for countries that have got it. We need to decarbonize the electricity supply. And we need energy security, as well, because we don’t know what future conflicts there might be. CCS ticks all those boxes.”

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What about ice ages?

Asked about how essentially all of Canada was glaciated 18,000 years ago, and whatever caused that ice to melt wasn’t SUVs or power plants; that we are in an interglacial era and that we are coming out of an ice age, Dixon responded, “You are right in the magnitudes. But what’s happening is the rate of change. We’ve never had this rate of change. And we know that from the geology, we can look at ice cores and everything else. We’ve never had this rate of change before. And species cannot adapt and evolve this quickly enough. So that’s the issue now is the rate of change.

“And as humans, you know, our infrastructure is set up around certain weather systems and coping with certain level of storms and floods. And we’re not ready for what’s coming down the line, rather quickly.

“And what what’s interesting, I think, I don’t know your audience on this. But for a lay audience, I say look at the astronauts, because they have a different perspective on this planet. They astronauts as a type of people are risk takers. They came from the test pilot world. They’re both brave people who need to take risks. They come back down as environmentalists. They look at the vastness of space. They look at this little lifeboat we sit on with a thin veneer of atmosphere. Scott Kelly calls it a contact lens of atmospheres. And that’s all we’ve got between us and the depths of space, and we’re messing it up. So I’d like people to ask how they change their minds when they can,” Dixon concluded

 

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