Taking an integrated approach to managing carbon emissions

(Calgary) When one thinks about how Canada will meet the carbon emission targets set out by the federal government—17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 and a 60 to 70 per cent reduction from 2006 levels by 2050—invariably three words pop into one’s mind: carbon capture and storage.

Researchers at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Clean Coal/Carbon and Mineral Processing Technologies, known as C5MPT, explained recently in Calgary that despite the strong promise of carbon capture and storage, it is only one of several technologies that must be used as part of an integrated approach to meeting Canada’s carbon emissions goals.

Qingxia Liu, scientific director of C5MPT, and Rick Chalaturnyk, theme leader, carbon storage, provided presentations under the theme of “The birth of a clean energy superpower: advancing Canada’s vision,” as the concluding lecture to the second season of the U of A’s Calgary Centre Speaker Series. 

Liu spoke to the need for a more integrated, or systems-based, approach to developing sound processes and commercially viable technologies to help manage carbon emissions. This systems approach is a major factor in the three aligned research themes for the C5MPT, “clean coal”, “mineral processing” and “carbon storage.”

“We’re not focused on research in just one area because all three themes are part of a complete lifecycle,” said Liu. “Incorporation of other technologies will be essential to meet long-term emissions standards.” As an example, Liu discussed how coal usage in electrical power production coal generates carbon dioxide. The centre’s focus on researching clean coal technologies looks to reduce this byproduct in a variety of methods. As coal-fired electrical generation represents a “large stationary emitter” of carbon dioxide, there is an integration of the clean coal and mineral processing themes in conjunction with the carbon storage research theme of the centre.

From a process perspective, capture, transport and storage of carbon dioxide are the main elements of carbon capture and storage. Each one has associated capital costs and operating costs, with capture currently being the most expensive stage, and storage being the least expensive. Capture refers to the ability to separate carbon dioxide from the emission stream, transport refers to truck or pipline movement of the captured carbon dioxide, and storage refers primarily to geological storage—the injection of the carbon dioxide into stable underground containment.

Chalaturnyk outlined “eight wedges” or parts of an integrated approach to reaching Canada’s carbon goals. They include fuel switching to nuclear, wind and solar power; the use of biofuels; increasing efficiency, reliability, safety and cost-effectiveness, and the use of natural carbon sinks like forests.

“Carbon capture and storage is one of the few near-term technologies that allows us to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel consumption,” said Chalaturnyk. “Others need to be incorporated, but each solution has its own costs and benefits. Also, public perception tied to carbon capture and storage’s attractiveness needs to be addressed. Without strong public support for the eventual adoption of each part of the emission reduction wedge, it will be difficult to reach the targets that have been set.”