Four high-tech projects Alberta is funding in the hopes of improving its environmental record
The province's reputation revolves around oil and gas, but what is it doing to silence the critics?
by Caroline Barlott
For better or worse, Alberta’s reputation revolves around its oil and gas-driven economy. And lately, that reputation has tended towards the worse, as the province’s oil sands resource and the companies tapping into it have acquired a reputation barely better than the tobacco industry. But what the province’s critics don’t – or won’t – acknowledge is that, in many respects, Alberta is a leader when it comes to eco-friendly technology and the policies that encourage their development.
Back in 2007, for example, Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to put a price on carbon. The law creating it mandated that large emitters of greenhouse gases reduce emissions by 12 per cent below their 2004-2005 baseline intensity. If they aren’t able to meet that goal, they need to improve their energy efficiency internally, buy carbon credits from other Alberta organizations or pay into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund.
Where does money from the fund go? That was determined two years later, when the provincial government formed the Climate Change and Emission Management Corporation (CCEMC). A board of experts pores over applications from individuals and businesses searching for projects that hold promise both environmentally and fiscally. Currently, the CCEMC is funding 53 projects in areas that include renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage.
It’s attracted some private sector support, too. For every dollar the CCEMC invests in the projects – they have $217 million currently in the pot – they’ve managed to raise an average of about $5 from venture capital funds interested in helping with the projects (and sharing in the potential upside). The projects have the potential to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs in the industry, generate economic activity and build knowledge. “It’s almost like ‘no regrets,’ ” says Eric Newell, chair of the CCEMC. “You want the technology to be successful but even if it isn’t, the effort isn’t wasted.” But the CCEMC has experienced success. Here are just a few of the higher-profile examples.
Project: Optimization of Enzymatic System for CO2 Capture from Oil Sands Production
Alberta has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 megatonnes by 2020 and 200 megatons by 2050. Seventy per cent of that amount is supposed to come from carbon capture and storage, a process that involves containing CO2 before it’s released into the air from industrial plants and then compressing, transporting and injecting it deep into the ground. CO2 Solutions is developing a way to use carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme used by the human body to convert carbon dioxide into useful substances, to capture and store the carbon emitted by industry. And while it’s made some headway deploying the enzyme outside the human body (and in higher temperature conditions), it’s still an expensive process – too expensive to be commercially feasible. That’s where the CCEMC and the federal government, which chipped in $4.7 million, have come in. Their support is expected to reduce the project’s cost by at least 40 per cent. That’s good news for energy companies looking to reduce emissions and increase production. “The plan is to inject it in an existing oil-producing field. Along with removing greenhouse gas emissions, we’re pressurizing the reservoir again so we can extract more oil,” says Andries. The project is still in the planning phase, but several companies, including Chevron, Suncor and Shell, have invested in the first stage of testing, which will happen in 2014 in an indoor CO2 capture environment in the Netherlands. The second test will happen the following year in Alberta.
Evergreen Energy Technologies
Project: Reliable power for remote locations
Newell says you never know who will win what he calls the eco-equivalent of Canadian Idol. “Good ideas come from everywhere,” he says. The Evergreen project is a prime example. Darryl West is the owner and only full-time employee of Evergreen Energy Technologies, a startup company with the goal of creating and developing concepts that reduce environmental impacts. West works out of his garage in Calgary, developing ideas such as Power Pod technology, the project that was ultimately funded by CCEMC. Generally, equipment in the oil and gas sector uses pneumatics, or pressurized gas, to create motion, but the problem is that the equipment often leaks natural gas and creates greenhouse gas emissions. But with a fuel cell solar power generator, such as the one developed by West, this is eliminated. The solar cell provides power, but when it’s not available (during short winter days, for example), the fuel cell backs it up. And the beauty of the operating system for Albertans is that it’s operational even in extreme conditions, down to -40 C. Already, the product is being used in the oil and gas industry, with more than 100 power pod units sold to date. “It will help Albertans monitor and control our natural resource production in remote areas with greater reliability, while leaving a much smaller footprint than before,” says West.
Growing Power Hairy Hill
Project: GPHH Integrated BioRefinery
Estimated GHG emissions reduction over 10 years: 932,078 tonnes
The concept is simple: a biofuel facility that takes agricultural waste and converts it into electricity, ethanol and organic fertilizer. But its effects will be complex and far-reaching, especially considering the facility, located northeast of Edmonton near the hamlet of Hairy Hill, will be the world’s first carbon-neutral biofuel plant. The plant uses items like cattle waste and grass clippings to create electricity that’s then sold back onto the grid. It’s a technology that could be used on an international scale, and Newell says we should be proud that it’s right in our backyard. It’s just another example, he says, of how Alberta is leading the way in eco-technology.
The Harris Corporation, Laricina Energy, Nexen and Suncor Energy
Project: Enhance Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heat
Kirk Andries, managing director for the CCEMC, says this project “has the potential to be transformative and could be a major breakthrough.” That’s because, if all goes as planned, this technology will offer producers a whole new way to extract bitumen. Typically, extracting bitumen requires steam, which is energy intensive. The new technology uses electromagnetic heat to raise the ground temperature and then injects solvents into the sand to dilute the bitumen. Carbon emissions will be reduced by as much as 80 per cent, with water consumption cut back as well. “If you’re using steam-assisted gravity drainage, you have to be deep enough into the ground so the steam doesn’t escape. But with the solvent and electromagnetic heating technology, that doesn’t apply,” says Andries. “So, you can actually extract all that resource basically all the way to the surface.”