A Suncor Energy plant near Fort McMurray, Alta., is going greener.
This fall, a $1.4-billion construction project is slated to get under way at the company’s oil sands base plant, about 25 kilometres north of the town, which will reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 25 per cent.
Three ageing petroleum coke-fired boilers are to be removed and replaced over a four-year period with two more energy-efficient, natural-gas-fired cogeneration units.
The units will provide steam generation required for the company’s extensive mining extraction and upgrading operations and lead to a significant reduction in GHGs such as sulpher dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
The changeover will also lead to a 20 per cent reduction in the amount of water needed to be withdrawn from the Athabasca River and enable about 800 megawatts (MW) of power to be transmitted to Alberta’s electricity grid, or approximately eight per cent of the province’s current demand.
“This is a great example of how Suncor deploys capital in projects that are economically robust, sustainability minded and technologically progressive,” explained Mark Little, president and chief executive officer.
“This project generates economic value for Suncor shareholders and provides baseload, low-carbon power equivalent to displacing 550,000 cars from the road, approximately 15 per cent of vehicles currently in the province of Alberta.”
As many as 600 workers are expected to be employed on building the new units. They are projected to be in service in the second half of 2023.
The move is viewed by Suncor as a big step towards helping the company honour its pledge of a 30-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
The company figures the new units will reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 45 per cent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 15 per cent and result in total GHG emissions being reduced by up to 2.5 megatonnes per year.
Suncor said in a statement that it intends to be part of the solution to moving towards a lower-carbon economy by continuing to invest in best-in-class assets and addressing the environmental impacts of its operations, improving environmental performance and implementing new technology and innovations.
The boilers presently in operation at the oil sands base plant use petroleum coke. The heat is used to make steam, electricity, boiler feed water and hot water to run the base plant operations.
A feature of cogeneration is that it produces both industrial steam and electricity by burning natural gas once and is considered the most energy-efficient form of hydrocarbon-based power generation. Excess electricity generated from the two cogeneration units will be exported to the province’s power grid.
The new units, which are being constructed within the footprint of Suncor’s existing plant, will eliminate the need for a flue-gas desulphurization unit that is used to reduce sulphur emissions associated with coke fuel. Decommissioning the unit will reduce the volume of water needed by the company.
“Suncor is primarily focused on ensuring reliable steam supply for its facilities but believes that implementing cogeneration is the most cost- and carbon-efficient method of producing both steam and power to meet demands,” the company noted in its statement. “Because of the 24/7 nature of our base plant operations, this is expected to provide a reliable and stable power source.”
The project has been on the radar since January 2018 when Suncor filed an application with the provincial regulator. Approval was received from the provincial regulator in July 2018 and from the Alberta Electric System Operator in November that year. Approvals from the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) were received in March 2019 and the project was sanctioned by the AUC in September.
AUC member Tracee Collins said in a report on the matter that the Commission, which is responsible for regulating the construction and operation of power plants in Alberta, looked at the social, economic, environmental and other effects of the project and approved the changeover. Suncor also applied to the AUC for approval to construct and operate two new 260-kilovolt transmission lines which were also approved.
According to the AUC, the cogeneration units meet the technical requirements for a power plant and the “environmental impact of the project is expected to be low, given that no new disturbance will result because the project will occur within the pre-disturbed footprint of Suncor’s base plant, which is an active industrial area.”