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An escape valve for greenhouse gas

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Out on the gusty plains of Saskatchewan, miles of new clean-energy wind turbines will eventually be joined by a familiar old ghost of electricity generation: a new coal-fired power plant.

Such coal facilities are generally bad news for those worried about climate change. Fossil-fuel power plants produce about a third of all the heat-trapping man-made carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. And the 1,300 new coal-fired plants expected to be built over the next quarter-century will pump an extra 145 billion tons out by 2030 - and much more over their 40- to 50-year life spans.

But at least the Saskatchewan plant, slated to go on-line in 2013 about 110 miles south of Regina, will sport a newfangled escape valve. By designing in a few million dollars of extras - everything from extra ductwork and bigger boilers to extra open space right next to key areas of the plant - utility officials are creating one of the world's first "capture ready" plants.

The idea: If and when government regulation forces it, the plant will be ready to accommodate any future technology needed to capture CO2 from its exhaust and pump it permanently underground.

"We're building a plant that will last for a number of decades, so it seems prudent to recognize that at some point during that time, carbon will have to be managed," says Rick Patrick, SaskPower's vice president of planning, environment, and regulatory affairs. "We think a capture-ready design will give us maximum flexibility for whatever comes at us."

Saskatchewan's "capture ready" idea seems most likely to appeal to Canada, European nations, and other countries required to slash CO2 emissions under the Kyoto accord by 2012. But the idea has less traction in critical areas such as China, India, and the United States, where most new coal-fired power plants will be built, and where there is no immediate demand to reduce CO2.

Critics on the left
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