SaskPower Boundary Dam GS

SaskPower Boundary Dam GS by Wtshymanski. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To quote John Goodman’s character (Hound) from the film Transformers: Age of Extinction, "That’s a bad idea — but I’m all about bad ideas."

Carbon capture storage may be unproven and expensive (as well as downright frightening), but the technology is set for its grand premiere on the Canadian Prairies. SaskPower is on the verge of rolling out a carbon capture-embedded power plant in the border town of Estevan, SK (population 11,000) and it’s a big deal. Estevan lays claim to being the sunniest city year-round in Canada, but is currently under a huge shadow of doubt about SaskPower’s decision to choose a carbon capture upgrade over ditching an out-of-date coal-burning power plant. A new federal regulation will require all coal-burning power plants over 50 years old to either be shut down or converted to emit 420 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour or less by July 2015 and SaskPower is going the conversion route.

As detailed in a Financial Post article, the $1.35-billion Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project has been backed by $240-million in federal funding and will result in a rebuilt coal-fired power plant embedded with technology that can sequester carbon dioxide emissions to either be stored in a deep well or sold for profit. The revolutionary technology utilized in this project is cool, futuristic and a bit bizarre. Carbon is “captured” when a liquid chemical is sprayed onto rising “plumes” of combustion gases and “latches onto” carbon dioxide molecules. The result is liquefied compressed carbon monoxide as an end product that can then either be injected deep underground or siphoned off and sold.

The project also provides a timely cautionary tale in relationship to Canada’s ailing infrastructure and how we might fix our problems using new technologies and creative financing. Do we fix it, scrap it, or add some doodads and sell it?

The Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project has its pros, its cons and its own set of “no other options” arguments working in its favour, but will be precedent-setting, regardless of how it is spun. The Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project also provides a timely cautionary tale for us all to think about in relationship to Canada’s ailing infrastructure and how we might fix our problems using new technologies and creative financing. Do we fix it, scrap it, or add some doodads and sell it? The lure of privatization for profit may be pointing us towards an inevitable reality that carbon capture, pipelines and big oil have already set into play. Montreal’s bridges, Toronto’s subways and other stressed infrastructures are deeply implicated.

The engineers and designers of this plant have come up with a plan that will not require ditching coal-powered plants (where I thought we were going), instead adding a “maze of pipes and tanks” that can “suck up 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide from one of the boilers so it can be shipped out for burial deep underground.” However, as Henry Fountain argues in The New York Times, the amount of energy required to power this extraction process will in turn reduce the plants’ capacity to generate electricity.

A big unknown is what the long-term implications are for the planet. The impact of burying carbon dioxide underground is simply not fully understood, nor has it been tested over time; it is just too new. Considering the unknowable long-term repercussions and potential for environmental risks, is this project even worth the massive effort and costs? Building a similar plant in Mississippi required $5.5 billion – so the budget projections are also suspect. Projects this big almost always go over budget and $5.5 billon is a very big number.

While there are plants in Norway that are successfully using this technology, the jury on the long-term effects of burying carbon beneath the North Sea, in these instances, are still out. The models are not fully tested. Earthquake risks, tainted drinking water, carbon dioxide bubbling up to the surface through fissures in the earth’s crust all might defeat the whole process in the end, but for now it’s a convenient short-term solution and it supports Canada’s oil and gas industries and national energy-based economic policies.

Estevan’s particular captured carbon dioxide will also be used as a tool to extract more oil from beneath the earth. After the CO2 is sold and shipped through a 60-kilometre-long pipeline, the captured carbon dioxide will end up in oilfields where it will be mixed with oil to increase the ease of flow for extraction.

Big design and sustainable design often create contested spaces, and ethically difficult infrastructure projects like this one have to be measured by more than just technical competence and the potential for profit. Like doctors, lawyers and other professionals, designers and engineers are relied on for their valuable technical expertise, but increasingly society also requires that they participate in discussions about the repercussions of their expertise.

Design and engineering may just be small bit players within our complex social contract, but we must reframe this contract to focus on the stewardship of the well-being of the planet as a core value. There is no such thing as a benign technology anymore, especially when applied on this scale. This mega-project may just be creating new mega-problems that we will not be equipped to deal with in the upcoming future.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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