[1THING] Blog

[ World’s First Full-Scale ‘Clean’ Coal Plant Opens in Canada ]

Like a lot of technologies that might be enlisted in the fight against climate change, carbon capture has faced a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma, castigated by skeptics as unproven yet given little opportunity to demonstrate its efficacy on a large scale. That begins to change today with the opening of the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage Project in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

Provincial-owned electric utility SaskPower bills Boundary Dam as “the world’s first post-combustion carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility attached to a coal-powered plant.” Not everyone is excited about its arrival: The director of Sierra Club Canada called the project “a waste of vital capital that should be invested in conservation, efficiency and renewable [energy].” But backers are hopeful Boundary Dam marks a turning point for CCS, which is widely thought to be essential to limiting carbon dioxide emissions but has been slow to arrive due to cost challenges and wavering policy support.

While carbon capture has long been deployed in the industrial sector, Boundary Dam is one of two big, groundbreaking CCS power-plant projects expected to begin operating this year, along with the U.S.-backed Kemper County Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Project in Mississippi. The two form a nice test pair for CCS: Boundary Dam as a retrofit to an aging coal-fired plant, using a system that captures the CO2 after the coal has been combusted; Kemper as new construction, using a system that turns coal to gas and removes much of the CO2 before combustion. (See related, “Clean Coal Test: Power Plants Prepare to Capture Carbon.”)

Kemper, however, has been beset by delays (and cost overruns that have more than doubled its original $2.4 billion price tag), and start-up is now pegged for next May. That leaves Boundary Dam, on the prairie in the southeastern corner of Saskatchewan just 10 miles north of the U.S. border, in the spotlight. And mainstream organizations searching for climate solutions are heralding its arrival – the International Energy Agency said the opening was a “momentous point in the history of the development of CCS.”

Capture facility at Boundary Dam (Photograph courtesy SaskPower)

Capture facility at Boundary Dam (Photograph courtesy SaskPower)

The retrofit of Boundary Dam’s Unit 3, carried out at a cost of more than $1.2 billion, has yielded a plant that can generate a net 110 megawatts of power while scrubbing the flue gases of at least 90 percent of the 1.1 million metric tons a plant of its size and type would typically emit, SaskPower says. The carbon dioxide can be stored about two miles underground in a layer of brine-filled sandstone, but much of it will go by pipeline to nearby oil fields, where it will be used to extract additional oil from nearly depleted wells.

Using CO2 for what’s known as enhanced oil recovery improves the economics of CCS, but SaskPower still needed $240 million in federal support to make the project happen, according to MIT’s CCS Project Database. Duncan Kenyon, program director for Unconventional Oil and Gas at the Canadian energy think tank Pembina Institute, said that on balance it was money well spent.

“Aggressive development of renewable energy sources and a commitment to energy efficiency are vital components to addressing climate change,” Kenyon said. “But there are so many assets and such a vast infrastructure invested in fossil fuels, the short- and medium-term reality is that we need carbon capture. So, yes, this is a big achievement, an important step forward.”

Proposed regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could make CCS a practical necessity for coal’s survival as an energy source in the United States, but Kenyon said Boundary Dam’s importance could extend beyond North America by sending a message to the world’s most prolific coal user, China, that carbon capture for power plants has arrived. (See related: “4 Key Takeaways from EPA’s New Rules for Power Plants.”)

Not that CCS backers have many doubts about the technology being used at Boundary Dam, which in its basic form was developed in the 1930s and first used to capture CO2 from flue gases in 1978, according to Howard Herzog, senior research engineer in the MIT Energy Initiative.

“It’s an old process, with a lot of new wrinkles, so the risks are fairly minimal,” Herzog said. “The thing is that it’s never been done at scale. As a first-of-its-kind project, there’s going to be a lot learning—SaskPower has already said they’ve learned a lot about how they can make improvements. That makes Boundary Dam very important and worth watching closely.”

Herzog isn’t sanguine about Boundary Dam sending a message to China – in his estimation, “they’re nowhere near willing to pay the price for carbon capture and storage” – but others in the CCS community share the hope expressed by Pembina’s Kenyon that the project’s impact will be felt beyond North America. It must, they say.

“I understand when critics say that carbon capture enables fossil fuels,” said John Thompson, director of the Fossil Transition Project for Clean Air Task Force. “But while eliminating all fossil fuels makes for a great bumper sticker, it’s not a real-world solution at this point. The math speaks for itself.”

Boundary Dam, Thompson said, debunks the criticism that CCS isn’t available or commercial. “That’s a hard thing to say when you can look out your window and see these plants actually operating.”

[ 12 wild places for fall colors off the beaten path ]

Every year, autumn delights us with grand displays of color. And every year Americans flock to prime places to see magnificent landscapes filled with reds, oranges and yellows.


[ Save sage grouse, save the economy ]

Sage grouse might be brown, white, and yellow, but their habitat means green for nearby communities—green as in cold hard cash.


[ Study: nature walks reduce stress, make us happier ]

A new study has scientifically proven what so many of us already intuitively know: walks in nature decrease stress and increase mental well-being.


[ Summit Tackles India’s Sustainable Energy Goals ]

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday, clean energy was on the agenda. A joint editorial from the leaders promised they would discuss ways to “expand affordable renewable energy” in India during the prime minister’s visit, his first official trip to the States.

The word “affordable” is key everywhere, but especially in India, where some 300 million people still lack access to electricity. Certainly coal, which currently accounts for 59 percent of India’s power capacity, will help meet that demand. But India’s quest to meet its energy needs occurs against the backdrop of increasing international pressure for nations to act on climate change, and there seems to be a recognition in India that even without that pressure, renewable sources such as wind and solar will need to be part of the solution. (See related story: “India’s Push for Renewable Energy: Is It Enough?“)

Prime Minister Modi is said to be seeking U.S. help in a bid to add 100 gigawatts each of solar and wind energy to the India grid within the next decade.

How can India get there? That was among the questions before a group of private and public sector leaders meeting today and tomorrow in Washington, D.C. for the U.S.-India Partnership Summit. The summit was convened by Yale University and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a sustainable development organization led by Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an adviser to the Great Energy Challenge.

Many comments at the summit suggested that the work of creating sustainable energy and smarter cities in India is actively proceeding, but still an evolving effort that needs better parameters and more solutions to problems of infrastructure and financing.

Ajit Gulabchand, whose Hindustan Construction Company is building what it bills “India’s first smart city,” talked about formidable challenges in building a 20,000-acre hill city where 80 percent of the people—300,000—will live in only 20 percent of the entire area. The Lavasa development, which lies 115 miles(186 kilometers)  from Mumbai, aims to draw not only residents but tourists, students, and businesses.

“We were looking at building a city which India needs very badly,” Gulabchand said, but “there was not enough understanding of how to build this” in terms of sustainability.

Gulabchand said that his company was obligated to restore what was environmentally damaged during the construction of Lavasa, but that the developers found “the whole place was considerably denuded.” The challenge of building the city was compounded by the need to enhance the land area in general, even where construction was not taking place, Gulabchand said. And the endeavor goes beyond building a city; Lavasa aims to be its own self-sustaining economy.

“It is a remarkable project with remarkable problems,” Gulabchand said.

An ad for Lavasa proclaims, “Some day all cities will be created this way.” Indeed, Gulabchand and others in India are threading their way through a process of sustainable development that still lacks a common set of standards, a point mentioned by multiple panelists at the summit.

“Creating standards [for buildings] at the outset will be critical to ensuring that the emissions are as low as possible,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Other participants mentioned the need for public-private partnerships, a federal loan-guarantee program similar to that of the U.S. Department of Energy, and a better way for financiers, contractors, and government to connect.

A new report from NRDC also says that “the Indian government and business leaders must overcome financing obstacles to achieve the country’s renewable energy goals and reach the full time growth potential of the clean energy sector.” But it also notes that India’s solar market has grown more than 100-fold in four years, and that India is the world’s fifth largest wind energy producer.

Despite the many challenges for India’s clean energy sector that were raised at the summit, many expressed optimism that a serious expansion along the lines of Prime Minister Modi’s 100-gigawatt goals is realistic.

“It’s very doable, and as more and more [renewable energy] gets unleashed, that will unleash more,” Beinecke said. “Which is exactly what’s going to happen in India.”

[ Which public wildlands can I visit with my dog? Answers here ]

It’s often been said that dogs are man’s best friends. Dogs can be great company on the trail, too.


[ 7 can’t-miss wildlife sightings this fall ]

We all know fall offers opportunities to spy gorgeous forest displays as the leaves change color.


[ Bipartisan Marine Monument Helps Protect Vital Ocean Systems, Ongoing Research ]

Michael Reinemer

The Wilderness Society applauds the Obama Administration for advancing bipartisan efforts to further protect ocean ecosystems and their scientific value by using the Antiquities Act to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, an undisturbed island and atoll chain located 1,000


[ Next few months will be critical for renewable energy and land protection in the California desert ]

For years there has been a growing demand on public lands in California and other parts of the west to support clean sources of energy like wind and solar power.


[ Some See Garbage, Others See an Opportunity: Installing Solar on Landfills ]

by Laurie Guevara-Stone

Green Mountain Power just broke ground on a 2 megawatt photovoltaic (PV) plant in Rutland, Vermont. While some other large PV systems planned for the area have met with strong opposition (some residents worry large, ground-mount solar arrays will be an eyesore on the state’s pastoral landscape), this project seems to be welcomed with open arms. Why? It’s being built on a 9.5-acre closed landfill.

The number of active municipal solid waste landfills that accept our household waste have been on a major decline, from nearly 8,000 in the late 1980s to less than 2,000 by the mid-2000s. All of the closed landfills around the country (not to mention closed cells on still-active landfills) leave us with a big question: What to do with those brownfields of largely undevelopable land? Many cities and towns —from Massachusetts to Colorado and Georgia to Nevada—are taking the same approach as Rutland, and using that unused and often unusable land to generate revenue and/or save on energy costs through solar farms. (See related post: “Fight Over Solar in Bridgeport: Two Types of Environmentalism Collide.”)

What makes landfills such an ideal spot for solar? For one, often the disrupted or even contaminated land may not be suitable for commercial or residential development. Also, putting solar on landfill sites is often cheaper, less impactful, and raises less community concerns than an installation on a greenfield site.

Another reason why landfills make such good areas to put solar farms on is the fact that many municipalities don’t have large areas of green space. However, it’s estimated that there are over 10,000 old municipal landfills in the country, many of which are located in close proximity to an existing utility grid, making interconnection economical.

Massachusetts has taken the lead in repurposing its landfills with large-scale and utility-scale solar, and much of that work has been done by PV financing and contracting company Borrego Solar. “When I look at a landfill I see a great opportunity,” Amy McDonough, senior project developer for Borrego Solar, told RMI. “Putting a solar energy generating system on land that couldn’t be used for anything else and that will save the municipality millions of dollars over the terms of the PPA [power purchase agreement] is a win-win situation.”

Once a landfill’s useful life is over, it gets capped. Capping consists of putting a barrier over the landfill, the geomembrane, to separate any harmful elements from people and the environment. Then comes a layer of sand for drainage, then vegetation. The geomembrane must not be penetrated, so Borrego Solar has engineered a ballast system for the racks. Since every solar array rack has two ballasts it costs more than doing a regular foundation, adding about 25 cents per watt to the total price of the system.

Massachusetts incentivizes solar installations on brownfields, though, helping improve the economics for landfill-based solar, which despite certain addition requirements like the ballast system already benefits from economies of scale associated with utility-scale PV projects. Now Borrego Solar is working with the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) to convince that agency to put in incentives for brownfields as well.

According to McDonough, the Northeast has a lot of great landfill opportunities. “A lot of the landfills are small, often with flat tops,” McDonough explains. “A properly closed landfill offers a really great base for a solar project. If it’s been closed for 10 or 12 years you don’t have to worry about settlement. But you can’t build a building on it, so there’s not much else you can do with it.”

One success story can be seen in the Town of Ludlow in Hampden County. The Town signed a 20-year PPA with Borrego Solar to lease 17 acres of the town’s closed landfill. Ludlow now purchases the energy produced from the solar panels at a rate of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour—compared to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour charged by the local utility. The 2.6 megawatt system is saving the town approximately $140,000 a year on energy bills, created local construction jobs on land that had been previously written off as undevelopable, and is estimated to offset 4.3 million pounds of CO2 each year.

Massachusetts now has dozens of solar farms on landfills generating over 78 megawatts of power, but other states in the Northeast are joining the trend. Vermont’s first solar landfill project, a 2.7 megawatt system, is currently being installed in Coventry, on the only active landfill in the state. Although the landfill is still active, the solar system is being built on the buffer zone, the required land that separates the landfill from other usable land. Since very little can be built on buffer zones, solar farms present a great option. The landfill in Rutland, Vermont, meanwhile is making headlines as it is including 4 MW of battery storage to shave peak electricity demand and to provide emergency backup power for Rutland High School (an emergency shelter) during outages.

New Jersey has also hopped on board as just last year the Garden State approved a proposal to turn the state’s 800 closed landfills into solar farms. And New York State is about to turn the world’s largest landfill—2,200 acres on Staten Island—into a park with a 47-acre, 10-megawatt solar farm.

Although the Northeast seems to be taking the lead in solar landfill development, the area is home to only 7 percent of the landfills in the U.S.—40 percent are in the western U.S. and 35 percent in the South. In fact, the largest solar energy generating facility in Georgia is a 1 MW farm on the Hickory Ridge landfill that uses a geomembrane cap covered with 7,000 thin-film PV panels.

While as of February 2013 there are 15 solar PV farms on landfills producing 30 megawatts of power, that number is growing quickly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has prescreened 1,600 landfills for solar potential. One study estimates closed landfills cover hundreds of thousands of acres of solar opportunity. A 2013 NREL study estimated that municipal solid waste landfills and other contaminated sites covered an astounding 15 million acres across the United States. Once other states get on board offering incentives for brownfield development, we may see those old heaps of garbage turning into electricity generating stations across the country.

This post originally appeared at the Rocky Mountain Institute and has been republished with permission.