As the world’s first commercial carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Unit 3 (BD3) CCS facility is no stranger to outside attention. It continues to draw visitors from around the globe who are interested in seeing the world’s first fully integrated CCS plant in action, and to learn more about how the project came to life.

This summer, the BD3 CCS facility was in the spotlight at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum’s annual mid-year technical meeting in Norway. I had the honour of representing SaskPower and the International CCS Knowledge Centre at the conference and accepting a Global Achievement Award on their behalf. This pioneering project has now captured and safely stored more than 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 since it began operation in 2014 – equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year.

The conference provided an opportunity to celebrate this important achievement, and also to consolidate the knowledge gained from the BD3 CCS facility. The ambition is that these insights can enable the next generation of CCS projects to be even more successful.

From the outset, the BD3 CCS facility was a commercially driven project focused on continuing to deliver reliable and affordable electricity for the province of Saskatchewan by extending the life of the coal-fired Boundary Dam Power Station. The project was conceived in 2005, long before national carbon pricing and net zero emissions targets were in place. While it was becoming clear that regulations to limit emissions from coal-fired power were on the horizon, the key drivers of the project were high natural gas prices that made a CCS retrofit more attractive than conversion to gas-fired generation, along with an existing market for CO2 at the enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations in the nearby Weyburn-Midale area. 

Construction on the BD3 CCS facility and Unit 3 turbine upgrade began in 2011, generating more than 5 million person-hours of employment and a workforce of 1,700 people during peak construction. The CCS plant was delivered with only a few months’ delay and only four per cent over budget — not bad at all for a first-of-a-kind project! 

The capture plant began operation in 2014, and its performance to date shows that the capture plant is capable of its design capacity of removing 90 per cent of the CO2 emissions from the exhaust sent from Unit 3 of the Boundary Dam Power Station. Throughout its operating life, the CCS facility is estimated to have captured an average of 89 per cent of the emissions in the flue gas it has processed, while the capture rate has exceeded 90 per cent last year (94 per cent) and so far this year (91 per cent).

From an engineering perspective, this demonstrates the real-world application of CCS to provide substantial greenhouse gas reductions from power generation and other heavy-emitting industrial sectors. 

There are also significant practical learnings from the operational experience accrued from BD3 that new CCS projects can leverage to improve performance, reduce costs and minimize the risks related to large-scale CCS deployment.

A critical lesson has been the ongoing challenge of managing fly ash in the flue gas from the coal-fired power plant. Knowing very well that there is a significant amount of fly ash in the flue gas going to the CCS plant, project engineers designed pre-treatment systems to remove 99.5 per cent of the ash before it enters the carbon capture process. Unfortunately, it turns out that even the residual 0.5 per cent caused serious problems as it accumulated over time and led to a variety of problems that affected the performance and efficiency of the CCS facility.

These challenges have been addressed over time, and this experience has shown that careful characterization of flue gas in the project design is vital to the successful performance of CCS facilities.  Tackling this challenge has led to many learnings in how to manage particulates, and it has helped to refine the process in a way that is applicable a broad range of heavy industry sectors, such as cement.

Conversely, some systems — such as flue gas coolers and waste heat recovery systems — have performed better than anticipated. Further, some of the contingency planning and uncertainty surrounding new technology that was prudent for a first-of-its-kind facility has been shown to be unwarranted for newer projects thanks to our better understanding of the technical and regulatory risks of CCS projects.

Importantly, the BD3 CCS project has also generated extensive experience arising from the underground storage of CO2.  The emissions that have been sent to long-standing EOR operations currently operated by Whitecap Resources, as well as the Aquistore project approximately three kilometres away from the Boundary Dam Power Station, have been the focus of significant long-term monitoring which has demonstrated that proper storage of CO2 in deep geologic formations is safe, permanent, and does not affect ground water or topsoil. This is key for providing confidence to investors and regulators in the development of future CCS projects.

The experience gained from the BD3 CCS facility is being deployed in a growing number of feasibility studies and consultation work the Knowledge Centre is conducting on CCS projects being considered across a wide range of industries, from power generation and cement manufacturing to mining, oil and gas production, chemical processing and hydrogen development. 

Achieving and the world’s ambitious climate goals won’t happen without CCS and associated CO2 removal technologies. The BD3 CCS facility and other early iterations of CCS technology, such as the Quest and Alberta Carbon Trunk Line projects, have laid the groundwork for the massive expansion of CCS that is required to undertake the transition to cleaner energy sources in a socially and economically responsible manner.

The Government of Saskatchewan and SaskPower need to be given credit for investing in this ground-breaking project, and, along with BHP, for their strong commitment to sharing the knowledge and lessons learned with the world. Through the Knowledge Centre, the expertise and visionary leadership that brought BD3 to reality is now helping to advance the next generation of CCS projects around the globe, and is proving that the value of an internationally focused organization dedicated to the curation and sharing of this knowledge is profound.

Based in London, U.K., Niall Mac Dowell is the International CCS Knowledge Centre’s Acting Vice-President of Strategy and Stakeholder Relations. Niall represents the Knowledge Centre amongst global decision makers and financiers to accelerate the deployment of CCS. He is also a professor in Energy Systems Engineering at Imperial College London.