Those familiar with oil sands operations likely know that development generates several valuable by-products in addition to bitumen.
sulphur (a vital feedstock for the chemical industry) and petroleum coke (a low-cost fuel) not only help keep other industries rolling, they also partly defray production costs, helping oil sands be cost-competitive with other sources of crude.
One valuable by-product rarely associated with oil sands is electricity. Oil sands developers, led by Suncor and its partners, are significant contributors of power to Alberta’s electrical grid. In fact about a quarter of the 2,100 megawatts (MW) of electricity generated by oil sands is sold into the northeast area of the province, increasing reliability and helping defer need for new power plants and transmission lines.
Suncor facilities include two legacy steam turbines at its base plant mining operations (40 MW total), five gas turbine cogeneration systems at its Firebag in situ operations (425 MW total) and 165 MW of contract cogeneration capacity at base plant and the MacKay River in situ operation. In total, the capacity ranks Suncor as one of the top five power producers in Alberta.
How has this come about? When the oil sands were first developed in northeast Alberta, the region severely lacked electrical infrastructure. Consequently, oil sands companies invested heavily in power cogeneration and on-site transmission facilities to run their own operations in a safe, reliable and sustainable manner.
Companies have continued to do so, not least, to benefit from opportunities in Alberta’s deregulated power market. Suncor, for example, sells about 250 MW into the power pool annually from its oil sands operations.
In the oil sands region, Suncor and its industry peers use leading-edge cogeneration technology, which is easier on the environment than traditional methods such as coal, because it makes efficient use of what would otherwise be waste heat produced when generating electricity. Natural gas, the most climate-friendly fossil fuel, is burned in oil sands power plants, with equipment converting unused heat to steam, supplying upgraders and extraction operations.
Cogeneration in the oil sands has helped reduce electricity generation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Alberta by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2006, according to published analysis in Cogeneration & On-Site Power Production magazine. So not only is oil sands power generation capability good for our industry, it’s also good for Albertans. (It’s also good for Suncor too, as its cogeneration activity creates offsets the company uses to comply with provincial GHG regulations.)
Affordable, accessible power
Overall, the oil sands’ excess power keeps provincial supply levels healthy, especially in northeast Alberta where power demand growth is the highest in North America. The ample power supply ensures consumers and businesses can access reliable, affordable power whenever they need it.
So next time you flick the light switch, use the microwave oven or blow-dry your hair, it may well be oil sands that’s playing a part in making everything work.