There are a number of organizations across the global CCS ecosystem that are helping their clients navigate the opportunities and challenges of bringing CCS projects to life as the world strives to reach a net-zero emissions future.

One of these companies is Carbon Alpha, a full-service developer of CCS and carbon dioxide removal projects based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They provide technical, operational and regulatory expertise to help their clients plan and execute carbon capture, transportation and storage projects, and they were recently chosen to take part an innovative bioenergy with CCS project underway in partnership with an Indigenous community in northern Saskatchewan.

We spoke with Carbon Alpha’s Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder Patrick Elliott about Carbon Alpha’s vision and the future of the CCS industry in Canada and beyond:

How was Carbon Alpha formed, and where does it fit in the broader CCS industry?

Carbon Alpha started in 2021 by myself and my business partner CEO Simon Bregazzi. We were exiting Jupiter Resources, which we co-founded back in 2014, and as we were looking over the landscape we saw an opportunity and a real need to bring our subsurface and project development expertise to the energy transition sphere, and to CCS developments specifically.

At that time, we saw an opportunity to support large industrial emitters in Alberta, where pore space for carbon storage was starting to be allocated to industry. The large industrial emitters had aspirations to decarbonize their operations, but many of them just didn’t have the subsurface knowledge, which is really important because when you capture CO2 you have to have a place to store it safely and permanently. So we initially focused acting as an advisory firm, mostly assisting with figuring out the transportation and geologic storage of CO2, and supporting all the regulatory applications that have to be made.

We started the company with a handful of really dedicated folks who came with us from Jupiter Resources, but we have grown and now have 18 full-time employees and several contractors. We are now a fully integrated project developer and our team is composed of engineers, geologists, geophysicists, development engineers, reservoir engineers, facility engineers, finance and IT professionals. We have one of the larger dedicated teams of technical professionals in the space now in Canada, and we have done work across Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and a bit in Ontario and Quebec.

What are the key projects Carbon Alpha is working on, and what has Carbon Alpha’s role been in supporting them?

A great example of the work we started with was with Heartland Generation, which was the second-largest merchant power producer in Alberta before they were purchased by TransAlta at the end of last year. We worked with them very closely to help them conceptualize what the storage requirements for their CCS project would be. This involved mapping out the tenure process with the government, doing the full geological review of all the existing well bores throughout the area, understanding the target formation in the basal Cambrian sandstone, licensing and processing the seismic data, picking drilling locations, and supporting all the regulatory pathways and applications the company needed to make for CO2 storage and transportation.

We still provide all those things, but our focus has also expanded as we have entered the carbon dioxide removal (CDR) space with our North Star project, which is a partnership with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) in northern Saskatchewan. We are very excited about this project as it will likely be Canada’s first bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) project where the power plant that uses waste wood from the MLTC’s sawmill to generate electricity will have carbon capture added to it, effectively removing CO2 from the atmosphere, while also generating significant jobs and economic benefits for the community over the long term.

North Star is the kind of project we have always aspired to. First, it is significant for us because we are going to have an equity ownership in the project, so we have a real stake in its success. In this case we are obviously going to be evaluating the subsurface and developing the pipeline that’s required to connect the emissions to the sequestration site, but we are also going to be leading the development of the capture facility and its integration with the existing facilities, as well as working on the engagement of the various stakeholders, and entering the carbon markets to realize the value of the carbon credits that will be generated by the project. It is truly a full-chain project for us as developers.  

Why has Carbon Alpha chosen to focus its attention and invest in the CDR and BECCS space, as opposed to the large-scale CCS projects in heavy-emitting industries?

We do see significant opportunity in the carbon dioxide removal, as it will be an important part of reaching net-zero emissions. Instead of managing emissions from burning hydrocarbons, the carbon removal space is a voluntary market because it results in negative emissions, or removing carbon from the atmosphere, and there is value to be generated through the creation of carbon credits, in addition to generating electricity from biofuels in the case of BECCS projects.

The real advantage for us is that BECCS and CDR projects like North Star are generally smaller scale, less complicated and require less capital to build. A lot of the newer CO2 capture equipment is being scaled down and modular, which makes it well-suited for a project like ours that will be around 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. If you just look at the forestry industry in Canada, it is massive, and they have been thinking about sustainability for a long time, so we think it’s an area where we can play a leadership role. We have a little saying: ‘big projects get the headlines, while small projects get built.’ At the end of the day we need all the big and small projects, but the smaller ones are a good fit for us right now.

How important is collaboration and knowledge sharing to getting CCS projects built? Does Canada’s experience building some of the first large-scale CCS projects benefit smaller projects now?

Yes, one of the great things that has come from projects like Quest in Alberta and Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan is that they were true leadership projects that have created the blueprint for how to go about developing CCS. We are now at the stage where there are stronger commercial drivers behind these projects, which make them more of a true partnership between industry, government and communities and Indigenous groups.

Knowledge sharing is also very important and I am proud of the technical team at Carbon Alpha, as they were the ones who started an industry forum called CHASM (Carbon Hub and Storage Meetup) that has been going for about a year now and it brings together professionals to talk specifically about carbon storage and CCS. All of the sessions have been sold out, and it has been a great way to share information and solve common problems facing our industry. I think that is really important, because collaboration results in greater success for everybody, and ultimately we all have to win regulatory and stakeholder approval if we want these projects to go ahead.

I think the more knowledge we get out there about how these projects work and why they are needed, the more successful we will all be, and we appreciate the great work the Knowledge Centre and other CCS organizations have done because it has allowed the whole industry to grow.

What are the key challenges to CCS development in Canada, and how can they be overcome to get projects underway?

I think one of the big things we've got to recognize is that we're, we're pioneering a new industry, so there are challenges to work through. There’s no question we have very good regulatory processes in place, especially here in Alberta, but the fiscal policies in Canada have not evolved quickly enough to support some of the large emitters making decisions to undertake CCS. Providing more confidence and clarity on the carbon price, and if it is going to be legislated to $170 per tonne, is probably the most important issue right now. Ultimately you can’t build a business case and finance these projects without that clarity, which is why some of the projects that rely on the compliance market have slowed down. It’s also a reason we’re focusing on the carbon removal industry, the voluntary carbon market, which is very different from the compliance market. There's no question, we have great regulatory processes but our fiscal policies in Canada have not evolved quickly enough to help support some of the large emitters to  make decisions to undertake CCS.