Black coal turns “green” under TransAlta plan

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - With half of North America's electricity generated by burning coal, "kneecapping the economy for the sake of pursuing a pure environmental agenda is unthinkable, undesirable and undoable," says the president of Alberta's biggest power firm.

Instead of the premature closing of power plants, the answer for TransAlta Utilities is to turn black coal "green," says Steve Snyder. His firm could have a carbon dioxide capture and storage system operating at one of its coal-fired electrical power turbines within four years, he told the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Advanced engineering is underway on "Project Pioneer," which will see a unit at Sundance or Keephills south of Wabamun Lake retrofitted with new technology from Europe's Alstom.

He says the pilot unit, using a chilled ammonia process, should recover 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide gas produced — about one million tonnes a year. A study is underway to find the best place to inject the gas into Wabamun area geological formations.

"The beauty of retrofitting is that you just tag on to your existing infrastructure," he said, adding the Wabamun project "will be the world's largest, and only, stem-to-stern carbon-capture project, from the plant to separating the CO2 to capturing it and sequestering it in a reservoir."

Snyder says utilities must innovate and deliver energy while minimizing their impact on the environment.

"If we do things right, we see the potential to make coal-fired generation near carbon-neutral within the next 10 to 20 years."

With support from the Alberta government, the move to carbon capture would receive a kick-start that could see the province be-come a world leader in clean-coal technology, similar to what happened when tax changes pushed development in the oilsands in the late 1990s, he says.

Alberta has 33 billion tonnes of coal, 70 per cent of Canada's total reserves.

We see the potential to make coal-fired generation near carbon-neutral within the next 10 to 20 years.

"Coal is reliable and relatively low cost. To simply say 'no' to coal without first exploring every avenue possible to eliminate its emissions cost-effectively would be a flawed approach," he said.

But carbon-dioxide capture is a critical solution to reducing global emissions. "Without it, one simply cannot see any realistic way to achieve the targets necessary to help our planet," said Snyder.

As a result, many billions of dollars will be spent on the technological answers, and "Canada and Alberta should make their fair contribution also, and reap the resulting benefits," he said.

Aside from technology, Snyder said market tools such as offsets and emissions-trading can help move the world toward a greener economy. Government rules and regulation on the environment must be "clear, realistic and integrated," with a harmonization of proposed federal and various provincial policies.

In Alberta, Snyder says new power transmission capacity is essential if customers demand more wind power generation from the southern part of the province.

Epcor is also planning a flue gas collection system and a pilot gasification plant at its nearby Genesee site.

Alberta's $2-billion carbon-capture innovation fund aims to kick-start four or five projects that will remove five million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


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