Clean coal plans shelved in Saskatchewan

A clean-coal project that Saskatchewan’s provincial power utility, SaskPower, has been promoting for several years has been shelved because of what its proponents claimed was a lack of government support. Seems the province had to move ahead with a decision on its future energy needs, so it opted to build a natural gas plant instead of waiting for the clean-coal option to move forward.

For all the talk and hype about clean coal, this is a prime example of the risks and high costs associated with such a project, and the fact that government — while they make good speeches about the potential of “clean coal” — aren’t prepared to put their money behind it. Nor should they, necessarily. The project in question was to be a 300-megawatt pulverized coal plant using the oxyfuel process to remove the carbon dioxide from the plant’s emission stream. The original cost estimate was $1.5 billion, which quickly expanded to $3.8 billion — and I believe that excludes the sequestration portion of the design (i.e. it’s just the separation and capture of CO2).

Allen Wright, CEO of the Coal Association of Canada, immediately pinned blame on the government. “Someone has to pay the bills on these things,” he said during an interview with a local newspaper. “To take something from the developmental stage to the commercial stage requires support.”

More support for the fossil-fuel industry, eh? If the coal industry is so eager to keep itself alive, perhaps it should front the money and not expect ratepayer to do it? I find these stories amusing, considering it is backers of the coal industry that always complain about incentives that go toward renewables, such as the premium paid for wind-power projects or the 42-cent per kilowatt-hour premium that the Ontario government pays for solar projects. This whining, this double-standard, shouldn’t go unnoticed.

For $3.8 billion you could do a lot with renewables — you could even build transmission lines from Saskatchewan to Manitoba to tap more hydroelectric power. It would could also go a long way in promoting the acceptance of hydrogen as an energy carrier (i.e. storage) for the grid. Even more amusing is that the coal industry, like the nuclear welfare system, is established — it’s merely looking to transition toward a new way of using the fuel. Solar, wind, hydrogen, etc… don’t have that incumbent market position from which to leverage. They actually need the help to counter-balance the massive influence of the fossil-fuel giants.

It’s with great delight that I see a lot of these large projects go nowhere. First, it deflates some of the hype and injects reality into the energy debate. Second, it reminds us that these technologies are not silver bullets, nor should they be too heavily relied on to solve our climate-change issues.

Here’s a thought: Dr. David Mills, founder of Khosla Ventures-backed Ausra Inc., believes Saskatchewan would probably be the only decent in place in Canada to build a solar-thermal power plant based on his company’s technology. It wouldn’t be as good as California, mind you, but Saskachewan has many of the right conditions to make a solar-thermal plant competitive — particularly if your competition is a $3.8 billion clean coal project, or even a natural gas plant for that matter. Perhaps SaskPower should inquire — at least ask Ausra to crunch some numbers. This is a project that could easily move forward, purely on the tab of private investors, and could be built on the 300 MW scale required by SaskPower (Ausra says it can scale up to 2,000 MW and plans to). Just as important, it could be built quickly, well within the province’s timeline of 2010/2012.

If Saskatchewan really wants to make a name for itself, that’s the way I would go. At the very least, I’d ask a few questions.