Well pairs: Directional drilling guides a pair of adjacent wells into the 1,400-meter coal seam at the Swan Hills Synfuels pilot plant in Alberta. Oxygen and water fed down one well cause a gasification reaction, sending clean-burning synthetic gas up the other well.
Shaigec says about 20 well pairs should generate sufficient synthetic gas to feed a 300-megawatt power plant that Swan Hills plans to build with a commercial partner that it has yet to select. The plant will be identical to a conventional combined-cycle natural-gas-fired power plant, with only minor adjustments to the gas turbine to accommodate the mix of hydrogen and methane. Thanks to that hydrogen-rich mix, the plant will produce just 250 kilograms of CO2 per megawatt-hour of power. The result, says Shaigec, will be power that is far cleaner than Alberta’s conventional natural gas and coal-fired generators, which release roughly 400 and 1,000 kilograms per megawatt-hour.
Swan Hills’s competitors, meanwhile, hope to build their own low-carbon power plants by managing the risk of groundwater contamination. Montreal-based Laurus Energy is awaiting permission to ignite wells it has drilled into a 200-meter deep coal seam in Alberta’s Drayton Valley. The Alberta Geological Survey and the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board concluded in a review released this summer that “there is a concern regarding groundwater contamination” from the operation, calling the concern a potential “impediment.”
Laurus CEO Rebecca McDonald insists that her company’s technology, developed by Laurus’s corporate sibling, Ergo Exergy, has been demonstrated to be safe in several-year-long continuous burns in Australia and South Africa. The key, she says, is constant monitoring of the groundwater, and management of the process to ensure that water from surrounding layers is feeding into the reactor and not flowing out. “Negative pressure on the seam means that contaminants cannot go out of there and contaminate the groundwater,” says McDonald.
Swan Hills anticipates that its project will be competitive with natural gas and coal-fired power plants that don’t capture their carbon emissions. “We’re positioning this generation to be the resource of choice, not only from an environmental standpoint but from an economic standpoint, which means competing with conventional coal as well as natural gas-fired generation in the latter part of the next decade,” says Shaigec.
Selling carbon dioxide to oil producers will be “vital,” says Shaigec. And he admits that government policies that put a price on carbon can only help. “We’re not too particular about how that takes form ultimately, as long as we see a more level playing field [for] projects that do practice capture and storage of CO2.”