It’s a potential innovation game changer. It’s mentioned on the same list—along with renewables, hydrogen, electrification and other solutions—when it comes to cutting industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The world needs it if we are to achieve global targets.
And we could have a made-in-Canada advantage, building on what’s been achieved in the oil patch to create a domestic carbon industry that’ll generate jobs while cutting emissions (more on this later).
We’re talking about carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS)—a group of advanced technologies that capture GHG emissions from large industrial facilities before they reach the atmosphere. With CCUS, captured emissions can be permanently stored underground in stable geological formations or used to create value-added products.
This group of technologies, once dismissed by some as unfeasible or speculative, is gaining growing attention worldwide as a real solution to address climate change while maintaining energy abundancy.
Making the case for CCUS
The International Energy Agency (IEA), for one, has called CCUS “a critical part of the technology portfolio” to fight climate change. In September 2020, the IEA reported that plans for more than 30 new CCUS facilities have been announced worldwide in the last three years alone. The IEA has high hopes for CCUS: Under the agency’s sustainable development scenario, CCUS accounts for nearly 15 per cent of the cumulative emission reductions needed to help the world transition to net zero emissions.
“When we consider the scale of the energy and climate challenge, the critical importance of carbon capture is inescapable,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, last February.
In Alberta and Canada, experts working closely with industry on innovative greenhouse gas-cutting technology solutions would agree.
Take Mark Summers, executive director, technology and innovation, at Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), a major non-profit organization that invests in clean technology development. For him: “CCUS represents an opportunity for our natural resource and manufacturing industries to continue creating value and improving quality of life while addressing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Matt McCulloch agrees. He’s a former director of the GHG environmental priority area at Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and now vice president, clean technology and innovation, at Exergy Solutions, a Calgary-based engineering consulting firm. He says: “CCUS is a major tool in the toolbox to dramatically reduce emissions from existing or new large-scale industrial facilities.”
Both argue that accelerating CCUS development makes sense in Canada if we are to lower our GHG emissions in a national economy that benefits from growing resource development. Or if we want to reduce GHGs in large-scale industrial sectors, like cement, where emissions are difficult to abate. Or if we are to build on our skills as a country.
“CCUS absolutely builds on our strengths in terms of technology development, can-do spirit and engineering expertise,” McCulloch says.
Canada’s early leadership on CCUS
According to McCulloch, industry in Canada has been a leader in CCUS for many years. Oil producers, for instance, have been using carbon capture and storage (a core part of CCUS) to improve oil recovery since the 1950s. This practice involves injecting high-pressure CO2 underground to push more oil out of aging wells.
"Currently there are 21 CCUS facilities around the world capturing large volumes of CO2. Of these, several are in Western Canada"
Over time, Canadian engineers and scientists, whether in national labs, university research centres or out in the field, have been building up unrivaled expertise in carbon capture and storage. In recent years, this work has taken on bigger dimensions, as climate change concerns have grown.
Currently there are 21 CCUS facilities around the world capturing large volumes of CO2. Of these, several are in Western Canada.
One is the Quest project—the first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project for an oil sands operation in the world. The facility is operated by Shell Canada on behalf of the Athabasca Oil Sands Project. Quest captures CO2 from the Scotford Upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. From here, the CO2 is piped 65 kilometres for injection into a high-capacity sandstone reservoir more than two kilometres underground, below multiple layers of impermeable rock formations. Since its launch five years ago, this project has stored five million tonnes of CO2.
Another is the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL), which started up last June. The ACTL carries CO2 captured from a bitumen refinery and fertilizer plant to enhanced oil recovery projects in central Alberta. This line is designed so it can connect with other facilities and other carbon storage developments as industry grows. Eventually, the line could carry up to 14.6 million tonnes of CO2 a year for different applications or underground sequestration.
And then there’s the Weyburn Unit operated by Whitecap Resources (and Cenovus Energy previously) in southeast Saskatchewan. This development injects CO2 deep underground to increase oil production from one of Canada’s largest crude oil reservoirs. Each year 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 are sequestered as part of this enhanced oil recovery development.
The impacts of these projects are massive. Just the Weyburn Unit alone has sequestered more than 31 million tonnes of CO2 since 2000. That’s equal to taking six million cars off the road for an entire year.
As these projects show, Canada has been an early leader on the CCUS front. And much of this action has taken place in the oil patch.
“We have the best expertise in the world to advance deployment of carbon capture technologies based on the experience we have from different carbon capture and storage projects,” McCulloch says.
So, where do we go from here? What’s being done to further advance CCUS innovation in Canada?
New approaches focus on cost savings, creating products
Up until now, most observers would agree that one of the biggest barriers to CCUS growth has been costs. These projects have required substantial infrastructure investment. Building the Quest project, for example, cost $1.35 billion, with millions of dollars in backing from provincial and federal governments.
But, like renewables, the cost of CCUS technologies is expected to decline over time. Shell, for one, estimates that if Quest were built today it would cost about 30 per cent less, thanks to improvements and learnings. And right now, there are Canadian startups, entrepreneurs and innovators working to improve the efficiency and costs of carbon capture through new approaches and new materials.
Consider Svante, a Vancouver-based clean tech company.
Svante has been partnering with Husky Energy, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Cenovus Energy, on an innovative carbon capture pilot plant near Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. The project, which was commissioned in 2019, captures up to 10,000 tonnes a year of CO2 from boilers at the Pikes Peak South thermal plant.
Flue gas typically vented through a smokestack is now diverted through Svante’s system. The system combines nanomaterials (solid adsorbents) with a very high storage capacity for CO2 with a rotating mechanical contactor or filter. Active material on the filter grabs onto CO2 in the flue gas. When the filter gets full, low-pressure steam is tapped to heat up the filter, releasing CO2 in a concentrated form that can then be used for underground storage or industrial use. The CO2 never makes it to the atmosphere, meaning the release of climate change-causing gases is avoided.
In the case of Pikes Peak, the captured CO2 is to be stored underground.
This plant is working so successfully that other similar projects using Svante’s system are in the planning stages for other customers and other industries across North America. Svante estimates that use of its technology could eventually cut the cost of carbon capture down to the $30-$50 per tonne range, around half the costs of other current traditional approaches. Svante, which employs 80 people, is an example of a startup adding to and benefitting from Canada’s burgeoning resource-based clean-tech sector.
Developing new improved technologies is one way to accelerate CCUS innovation in Canada. Another is to capture and convert industry CO2 emissions into new valued-added products.
That’s the opportunity being pursued at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) in Calgary. Owned and operated by InnoTech Alberta, this pioneering facility enables innovators from around the world to test and commercialize carbon conversion technologies under real-world industrial conditions using flue gas.
Right now, the facility is home to five of the 10 finalist teams from the US$20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition. One of the finalists is Team CERT. This Toronto-based group has found a way to use catalysts, together with water and electricity, to turn CO2 into all-purpose building block chemicals like ethylene.
“Right now, a lot of ethylene is used to make plastics, which is a significant issue in the world with end-of-life plastic waste…If we can take that end-of-life plastic, take the CO2 from the incineration and transform it into new ethylene, we have managed to close that carbon loop. And so, we see our technology and other technologies developed in XPRIZE as a way of really making that circular (carbon) economy happen,” says Alex Ip, co-founder of CERT and director of research and partnerships at the University of Toronto.
When the Carbon XPRIZE wraps up in mid-2021, the ACCTC is expected to then become a global hub for further carbon-conversion breakthroughs. The results of this effort could be huge—with companies and industries using the resulting technologies to prevent GHG emissions, while creating new streams of revenue from carbon-containing products.
This innovation is being watched with particular interest by COSIA and ERA.
Both organizations have invested significantly in CCUS technologies on both sides of the carbon capture and carbon conversion equation. For the last five years, COSIA members have sponsored the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE with the ACCTC as one of the competition’s primary test sites. And since 2013, ERA has committed more than $65 million to support nearly 30 different companies and their technologies across the CCUS value chain.
Both organizations are working to drive more CCUS innovation through collaboration. COSIA is in talks with different industry players, including cement manufacturers, power developers and the chemical industry, to share ideas on how to reduce the cost of CCUS faster. And ERA has joined Accelerating CCS Technology (ACT), an international funding initiative coordinated by the Research Council of Norway, to advance CCUS technologies around the globe. Through this collaborative, ERA hopes to identify innovative CCUS technologies with strong potential for commercialization in Alberta.
As ERA and COSIA work with others, they say interest in CCUS, after years of being quietly in the background, is building momentum, including here in Canada.
“Receptivity to CCUS as a real, viable solution for industrial operations is gaining traction,” says Summers.
And judging from recent events, they could be right.
Signs of growing support for CCUS in Canada
Last summer, the Energy Future Forum, a new pan-Canadian collaboration of business, government agencies and NGOS, issued a position paper calling on governments to “immediately lend support” to the development and implementation of Canada’s CCUS technologies. This came with the endorsement of major organizations like CIBC, RBC, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
In September, the Alberta government said it would spend up to $780 million from its Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund on programs that help industry further lower its carbon impact. This will include $80 million specifically for Alberta’s new Industrial Energy Efficiency and Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage grant program.
Then, in October, the federal government awarded $100 million to the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), an industry-led network. This investment will be used to accelerate the development and adoption of ground-breaking emission-reducing technologies in the oil patch. Among the technology opportunities being targeted by CRIN for support are technologies that convert GHGs to valuable products.
“We have this amazing opportunity and impetus for broader development of CCUS across the country,” McCulloch says.
Certainly, Canada has played a major role in advancing CCUS so far. Is now the time to scale up our Canadian CCUS technologies and investments as part of an overall response to climate change?
That’s certainly the hope—especially as industry and its partners look to leverage new innovative options to cut emissions in support of national climate goals, while creating cleantech jobs and enabling Canadians to continue to benefit from a strong resource economy.