Jim Wilson, of Wil-Tech Industries. Submitted

ESTEVAN – Jim Wilson was heavily involved in trying to make “clean coal” happen in Estevan. And in 2008, the federal government under Conservative Stephen Harper announced $240 million for what would ultimately become the Boundary Dam Unit 3 Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project. In 2014, it finally went online. But now, eight years later, no further coal units have had carbon capture installed, and according to the Crown Investments Corporation and SaskPower Minister SaskPower Don Morgan on Sept. 20, the federal Liberal government will not allow any more.

As such, the clock is now ticking on coal-fired power production in Saskatchewan, as federal regulations require all conventional coal-fired power to be shut down by the end of 2029, just seven years away.

The owner of hydraulic specialist firm Wil-Tech Industries saw coal mining as its first customer, and one of its biggest.

Reacting to what Morgan said, Wilson told Pipeline Online on Sept. 21, “It was a dose of reality that we probably knew was coming.”

“I was very much involved in trying to get it built. I was proud of what we achieved. Everything was good. I remember hearing (Catherine) McKenna in Paris make the announcement,” he said, adding, “Carbon pricing and all that has changed our world.”

He said, “You know, their decisions were not science-based, or business-based. They were politically-based. They were clearly political. And that’s what (Morgan) answered to you. It’s sad for you and I, and the community that built the first clean coal facility of its type. And it was probably a transition solution more than anything, right?

“That’s the point: they’re ignoring this technology. And it works. And to my knowledge, and we’ve developed it and built the first.”

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Even though the carbon capture project hasn’t worked as well as initially promised, he feels that the next generation of carbon capture could have been developed. In 2018, the International CCS Knowledge Centre, partially funded by SaskPower, put out a study to that end, looking at putting carbon capture on the Shand Power Station, using the lessons learned from the Boundary Dam project. So far, nothing seems to have come of it.

SaskPower president and CEO Mike Marsh, speaking to the Estevan Chamber of Commerce in December, 2018.

 

In 2018, just after that study came out, then-president and CEO of SaskPower Mike Marsh spoke to the Estevan Chamber of Commerce about the future of the coal fleet. Those who attended, including Wilson, took that meeting as sobering. He turned to his family, who run Wil-Tech, and they spoke about expanding into other markets. The company now has operations in Regina and Saskatoon.

“I could tell things were bad. I walked out of that meeting with Dustin, my son. And we focused more on Saskatoon that next day, knowing what was going on. But sometimes the most valuable thing you have is knowledge. And Estevan that taught us how to do it. And the fact we pivoted, that’s why we’re there.” Wilson said.

Nuclear hopes

On Sept. 20, SaskPower announced it was considering the Elbow and Estevan areas as possible sites for nuclear power development. To that end, Wilson said, “If they were not to choose Estevan, it would be a pretty difficult situation. So I think we’ve got to hold them accountable.”

He added, “The community’s going to change. We knew what was coming. In all these things that we’ve been trying to do you know, a potash research facilities, is not going to replace two power plants and mines.”

“If we’re going to be the first nuclear, let’s handle that right and let’s continue,” he said.

“It’s time to get clear answers, right? Like we’ve been waiting, what, four or five years for this to unfold.”

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Wilson continued, “The most difficult thing we face is not economies, it’s political change. And you can’t run a power company in four-year political cycles, right? Because federal change was what we’re talking about here, more than provincial. But truthfully, our oil industry has been regulated into the ground. Our coal industry, and now our fertilizer industry.

“I don’t want to be a whiner. But if we have the same engineers who built clean coal get to build something new, we’ll probably do fine. If everybody moves away, we won’t be a story.”

Hopeful for coal life extension

He hopes to get an extension on the life of the coal fleet through political change, until such time as nuclear power is built. “If we actually get the build, and the extension, it could work.

“This should be the first of its type. So, we could be seeing some pretty special people involved in this. It’s the future more than the past. So we need to get the nuclear deal and I think that is political.”

“We have an opportunity to lead in technology. We signed this memorandum and Alberta’s next. Let’s do it right.”

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“We’re a community that fought to save a coal mine, and a power plant, and the industries that we’re in. And then we got politically cornered. And it’s hard. There’s passion in this story, and I don’t know if people feel sorry for Estevan. But the 30 per cent changes in real estate, we’ve already felt those.

“Estevan’s already been through some pretty tough times, and this might be more bad news on top of bad news. But business is good, and things are going good. If we can get the (nuclear) plant and the (coal) extension on the existing, I think there’s life in the Estevan story.”

“The same engineers who develop that technology (carbon capture) can develop any technology. But when they move away, they’re gone. And so how do we keep the smart minds in our community? And you know, nuclear is the answer.”

“I’ve had to pivot. And I took what I learned here and took it elsewhere. And that’s what’s been successful. Estevan is a hard-working community, and it’ll figure it out if you give it a chance,” Wilson said.

 

Pipeline Online is the only media in this province focused the Saskatchewan energy sector. This is what we do, period. Watch for new stories posted at PipelineOnline.ca Monday to Friday with the lead story at 7 a.m., as well as stories posted throughout the day. If you see something you like, please share it.

 

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