SaskPower Admits to Problems at First “Full-Scale” Carbon Capture Project at Boundary Dam Plant

Once again, a first-of-a-kind technology at a coal-fired power plant that is designed to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint has run into design, operational, and cost problems.

This time, it’s Saskatchewan, Canada utility SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Carbon Capture project that’s facing scrutiny. (Earlier this week, an overdue precombustion carbon capture project, Mississippi Power’s Kemper County integrated gasification combined cycle plant, reported yet another cost overrun, of $110 million.)

In a Sept. 14 press release, SaskPower notified the public that a “large piece of SaskPower equipment” would be moved across the province and would in some places require temporary outages because of necessary power line moves. The 90,000-kg cylinder, the size of a six-story building, is, the company said, “one of the major components in SaskPower’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) process. It will improve the reliability of the storage for the amine solution being used to capture carbon dioxide molecules.”

That news should have been a clear indication that something major was amiss at the facility. But only this week, several media outlets within the province ran stories quoting Energy Minister Bill Boyd, the government official who oversees the crown corporation, about deficiencies at the plant.

Since the facility went online a year ago, SaskPower said in the mid-September release, the CCS process has captured more than 400,000 metric tons (mt) of carbon dioxide. That’s far less than the million mt annually that the utility indicated previously it was on track to capture.

Although some fine-tuning is to be expected with any first-of-a-kind technology, the problems at the Boundary Dam site appear to be more substantial than anyone outside the company was aware of. When POWER visited the project in May, prior to announcing that the project won the magazine’s 2015 Plant of the Year award (it also won the 2015 Edison Electric Institute’s Edison Award), SaskPower representatives made it clear that there were some issues to be resolved with the contractor and that some systems and individual components (such as valves leaking far earlier than would be expected) were not yet operating as they should. However, the impression was that the issues to be resolved were more along the lines of a “punch list” rather than fundamental, operationally crippling problems, which is clearly the case if the capture facility's availability is only around 40%.

Global News reported that SaskPower’s president of Carbon Capture and Storage Initiatives, Mike Monea, explained that when the plant is operating, it’s capturing CO2 at 90%, “but because of mechanical issues,” it’s only operating 40% of the time.

In response to questions from POWER about the capture equipment, SaskPower spokesman Tyler Hopson responded, "The rate has fluctuated over the course of the year and since we launched in Oct. 2014. We’ve been testing various capacity factors to find problems and fix them, as is routine on any large-scale industrial project. We’ve also had regular maintenance periods to exchange equipment under warranty and apply fixes. We have achieved capture rates that came very close to peak capacity at times, and also tested other rates to see the impact on the amines, equipment and need for scheduled maintenance."

This week’s comments appear to have been prompted by the province’s opposition party’s obtaining SaskPower “background notes” that were provided to the government that refer to significant difficulties with SNC-Lavalin, the engineer, procure, and construct contractor for the capture facility. Those difficulties have led to legal action. A story in the Regina Leader-Post notes that the provincially owned utility is in a “dispute resolution process against contractor SNC Lavalin” over “serious design deficiencies.”

CBC news reported that SaskPower President and CEO Mike Marsh said, "SaskPower expects to have over $50 million in claims against SNC-Lavalin alone. The last three months have seen very poor to no support from SNC-Lavalin." [In an email to POWER after this story was posted, SaskPower's Hopson said the briefing note was actually written by President of CCS Mike Monea.] Additionally, the note said, SNC-Lavalin "has neither the will or the ability to fix some of these fundamental flaws."

The operational problems are creating revenue problems for the project as well. Cenovus Energy has a 10-year agreement with SaskPower to purchase compressed CO2 from the project for use in enhanced oil recovery nearby, but because the utility has not been able to supply sufficient CO2, it owed Cenovus C$12 million in penalties last year and may owe another C$5 million this year. The provincial energy minister, Boyd, has said those penalties will be offset by C$11 million in payments from Cenovus. Hopson said today that for this year, "revenue will outpace any penalties we will pay for CO2 shortfalls."

While the power plant continues to operate, the capture facility is currently offline for repairs. Hopson told POWER, "Some pieces of equipment needed to be switched out under warranty, others needed testing and calibration. In the next week, we’ll be done our scheduled maintenance and anticipate we’ll increase the CO2 capacity of the process."

SaskPower has said the project is on track to be fully operational by the end of 2016.

Gail Reitenbach, PhD (@GailReit, @POWERmagazine)