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The Quest CCS project near Edmonton announced last week that it successfully stored one million tonnes of carbon dioxide deep underground in its first year of operation. That’s equal to the emissions from about 250,000 cars. (Phillip Chin/Phillip Chin for AP Images)
The Quest CCS project near Edmonton announced last week that it successfully stored one million tonnes of carbon dioxide deep underground in its first year of operation. That’s equal to the emissions from about 250,000 cars. (Phillip Chin/Phillip Chin for AP Images)

MICHAEL CROTHERS

Why carbon capture is just as important as renewable energy Add to ...

Michael Crothers is the president and country chair of Shell Canada.

Would you buy a laptop with only 340 kilobytes of memory for $27,000? One that overheats and always needs to be plugged in?

What about a cellphone that weighs over a kilo and is as long as an iPad? One that offers 30 minutes talk time after being charged for 10 hours?

Me neither.

World-changing innovations can be a hard sell when they are new.

Laptops have come a long way since the GRiD Compass in 1982. Mobile phones have moved on a lot since the first working prototype in 1973.

And, today, there is another technology out there with the potential to be revolutionary. Although it will never fit in your bag or pocket, it is struggling to gain the recognition it deserves, just like the laptop and cellphone before it. That technology is CCS: carbon capture and storage. It catches carbon dioxide that would otherwise go into the atmosphere from power stations and other industrial facilities, and stores it safely underground.

The world needs it.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes the world’s climate goals may be unobtainable without it. And it could play a vital role in helping Canada meet its own climate targets. That’s because CCS has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from a wide range of industries, including steel, cement, chemicals and power generation.

Good news: The technology exists and it works. It already works far better than the GRiD Compass computer or the 1973 Motorola cellphone. The Quest CCS project near Edmonton announced last week that it successfully stored one million tonnes of carbon dioxide deep underground in its first year of operation. That’s equal to the emissions from about 250,000 cars.

The even better news is that Canadians are really good at CCS. Of the world’s 22 large-scale CCS projects, nearly a fifth are in Canada. We also have clean tech companies like Montreal-based Shell Cansolv that are pioneering the capture technology.

Yet, despite its promise, CCS seems to be the Cinderella of the world’s energy transition. It is yet to be invited to the ball. Instead, attention is focused on renewable energy and efficiency measures.

Consider this. Desert Sunlight in California is the world’s fourth-biggest photovoltaic solar farm. It covers a land area equivalent to 300 Rogers Centres. It received a federal loan worth nearly $2-billion (U.S.), and displaces 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. But it would need to be more than three times bigger, covering an area 16 times the size of Toronto Islands, to displace the same amount of carbon dioxide that the Quest CCS project is storing away for good.

A solar facility of that size would easily be the world’s biggest, attracting global attention to match the achievement. Yet you may not even have heard about Quest, which cost about $1.35-billion (Canadian) with $865-million of that coming from the governments of Alberta and Canada, until today.

That is not to say the world does not need solar farms. This is not either/or. Shell’s own modelling shows that the planet will need to shift its energy mix this century from 80-per-cent fossil fuels to 80-per-cent non-fossil fuels. The world needs all the technologies it can get to tackle climate change. It needs renewables. It needs big progress on energy efficiency. And it needs CCS.

Fortunately, we are already learning much through Quest and other CCS facilities including SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project in Saskatchewan. Sharing lessons from these projects could help make similar subsequent plants 20-per-cent to 30-per-cent cheaper to build and operate.

Even so, like the laptop and cellphone before it, the cost of CCS continues to be its biggest challenge. Effective, government-led carbon pricing mechanisms would certainly encourage future CCS projects. For example, funds from Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan can help deliver clean technologies to bring down oil and gas industry emissions.

But in the future, CCS facilities could help fund themselves by using the carbon dioxide they capture to make new products: concrete, fertilizer and even pharmaceuticals. Shell is jointly supporting the $20-million (U.S.) NRG COSIA carbon Xprize to spark exactly that sort of innovation.

To be clear, CCS is not the only answer to climate change: There is no single answer. But it is part of the answer. Canada has played a critical role in making CCS viable. Now we need to help scale it up, just as with other technologies.

Just remember how much your laptop weighed 20 years ago and what your cell could handle 10 years ago. With the right policy support, CCS could blossom. And, if it does, just think of the impact she could have at the ball.

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