Clean energy

Innovative Swan Hills project aims to produce synthetic gas from deep coal seams

Has Alberta finally found the key to unlocking its vast coal resource? In a province best known for its oil and gas, insitu gasification technology could hold the key to clean, low-carbon synthetic gas from unminable coal. This gas is expected to produce the same amount of energy that natural gas does, but with roughly half the greenhouse gas emissions. And it might help redefine how Alberta produces its energy.

The Swan Hills Synfuels In-Situ Coal Gasification/Sagitawah Power Project will produce clean synthetic gas from deep, unminable coal seams near Swan Hills, located northwest of Edmonton. This low-carbon gas will be used to fuel a new 300 MW powerplant near Whitecourt, 60 km south of Swan Hills. CO2 captured by the project will be used in the oilfields in the Swan Hills area for enhanced oil recovery, increasing oil production while permanently storing the CO2.

Doug Shaigec, president of Swan Hills Synfuels, says in-situ coal gasification will help Alberta blaze a trail for cleaner, more environmentally responsible use of coal. "We believe our Sagitawah Power Project will be a major step toward cleaning up fossil fuel-based energy production."


Almost 70 per cent of Canada's coal reserves are found in Alberta, which has an estimated 33.6 billion tonnes of established coal reserves. Alberta's coal contains more than twice the energy of all the province's other conventional non-renewable energy resources combined, including oil, natural gas, and oilsands.

Gasification is a manufacturing process that converts materials such as coal into a synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas can then be used as fuel, or it can be further processed to produce other products such as fertilizers and liquid fuels.

Gasification is a method for extracting energy from organic material and is an efficient technology that can produce high-value products from low-value feedstock such as coal. First developed in the 1800s, gasification has been used commercially throughout the world for more than a century.

The gasification process uses injection and production wells drilled from the surface to access the coal seam and facilitate the process in-situ. The coal is not extracted to the surface as there is no coalmine or coal-handling facilities. Through a high-pressure gasification process, the coal is efficiently converted in-place in its original seam into syngas. The syngas flows to the surface and is then processed in a conventional gas plant to produce fuel for electrical power generation or used to produce other products.

In 2009, Swan Hills Synfuels started a demonstration project of the insitu coal gasification process. Shaigec says the results of the project provide valuable information that will assist the company with the development of its commercial Sagitawah Power Project.

The Sagitawah Power Project is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Under the Government of Alberta's $2-billion Carbon Capture and Storage Fund, the province will invest $285 million. Construction is expected to start in the third quarter of 2012. The project is should be in service in 2015. The lifespan is expected to be 40 years and produce over 17 million GJ of syngas energy per year.

The project will be comprised of four components:

  • The insitu coal gasification facility will include the in-situ coal gasification well pairs, associated pipelines, and syngas processing plant. The facility will use independent pairs of wells to gasify coal in its original coal seam to provide raw syngas to a surface gas processing plant. At the syngas processing plant, the syngas is cleaned to remove impurities and CO2. Swan Hills Synfuels has contracted PCL Industrial Management Inc. to construct the facility.

  • The power generation facility will use clean, low-carbon syngas from the insitu coal gasification facility to produce electricity. This facility is a 300 MW combined-cycle power generation facility using syngas as its primary fuel. This facility will be located near Whitecourt and will tie into the existing 240-kilovolt high-voltage transmission system in the Whitecourt area. This facility can produce enough electricity to power 300,000 typical households in Alberta, or about one-quarter the size of Calgary.

  • CO2 captured by the insitu coal gasification facility will be transported by pipeline to oilfields in the Swan Hills area for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The facility will be adjacent to established oilfields that have over 4 billion barrels of original oil in place. EOR will result in more oil being produced from these maturing oilfields.

Estimates are that the project will capture 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, representing over 20 per cent of the government's funding objective of reducing CO2 emissions by 5 million tonnes per year. This is equivalent to taking about 260,000 cars off the road, installing 380 wind turbines to offset traditional coal emissions, or retrofitting approximately 400,000 Canadian homes.

  • The fourth component is a syngas pipeline. It will transport the low-carbon clean syngas from the insitu coal gasification facility near Swan Hills to the power generation facility near Whitecourt. The pipeline will be in the 20-30 inch diameter range. At a length of 60 km, it will move approximately 200 MMcf/d of gas.

The Sagitawah Power Project has several benefits. Environmentally, the lack of above-ground coal mining facilities means the project will have a small footprint. The project will also use non-fresh water in the gasification process, conserving an estimated 6 million cu. m of fresh water each year as compared to a conventional coal-fired power plant.


Capturing CO2 and using it for EOR and then storing it promises to dramatically reduce the amount of emissions from the project. The EOR aspect will net Albertans increased oil royalties from increased oil production. And, of course, there are the clean energy and secure source of electricity aspects of the project as well.

Bob McManus, acting director of communications at Alberta Energy, says the Sagitawah Power Project will be a significant contributor of clean coal electricity to meet Alberta's growing demand.

"The project will help prove an innovative electricity generation method that has the potential to reduce the impact of conventional coal electricity generation and access vast resources of coal that are unminable," he says.

"Alberta's support of commercial-scale [carbon capture and storage] technologies such as this will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province, but will have global applications that can make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions."

Excitement is building in the town of Whitecourt about the project.

"This project will help Whitecourt build another pillar for our community," says Mayor Trevor Thain. "Currently, we have forestry and oil and gas and we are about to add electricity generation to the mix."

Thain says there are already some Whitecourt residents working on the project, and when construction begins, he expects more jobs will become available. Not only will the power-generation facility provide new jobs, but Thain says the EOR component will create additional jobs as well.

"With the EOR doubling production in the maturing oilfields near Swan Hills, which will double the life expectancy of the oilfields, that increase in production will result in more work, more drilling, more trucking, and other spin-off business opportunities for hotels and restaurants."

There are many steps involved in the Sagitawah Power Project that will take several years to complete, as it is a capital-intensive energy project. Swan Hills Synfuels' next steps include preparing a regulatory application this year and filing it in 2011. The regulatory process is expected to take 12-18 months. Pending regulatory approval, construction will begin after approval is received.

Shaigec says there is enough coal at Swan Hills for multiple future phases of insitu coal gasification development to produce clean energy.

"If this project is successful, the potential to expand it or replicate it is very significant," he says. "This would greatly add to Alberta's ability to produce clean syngas from coal, reduce its total yearly CO2 emissions, increase the government's oil royalties, and provide many benefits to the businesses and residents of Alberta."

2015 ACM MMM Button

2015 ACM Email Button


Free account to gain access to ACM digital editions.