Project offers reason for hope

Ever since it became clear that Units 4 and 5 at the Boundary Dam Power Station would eventually be retired, one of the questions that has been front and centre is how we’ll find the businesses and industries to provide the jobs lost when 4 and 5 come offline, and conventional coal power is phased out.

We’ve seen some positive developments. The addictions treatment centre at St. Joseph’s Hospital is now open; it has brought jobs, good jobs, to the community. The Estevan Shoppers Mall has announced ambitious plans to renovate and modernize the shopping centre.

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Several businesses have opened in the Estevan area in recent months. These are all positives; they show people have faith in the community and are willing to take a chance on Estevan during an incredibly challenging economic time. These are a diverse group of businesses, and they are generating employment.  

But they obviously aren’t going to generate the jobs that coal-fired power generation will bring.

That’s why it was so intriguing, and encouraging, to see an announcement about a memorandum of understanding between the City of Estevan, the Ocean Man First Nation and the Buffalo Potash Corp. to establish a polygeneration facility in the Estevan area.

According to the news release, it would “use southern Saskatchewan’s coal, potash, natural and inert gases, brines and other raw materials to make high quality synthetic fuel, generate power through co-generation, and other value-added products such as potassium-based fertilizer, hydrogen syngas, battery materials, and pitch for carbon fibre.”

The announcement received plenty of attention at the all-candidates forum hosted by the Estevan Chamber of Commerce later that day, and most on social media seemed to support it.

Polygeneration is complex and it would carry a large price tag, but if this concept were to proceed, it could carry an enormous benefit for the region and offset job losses we’re eventually going to suffer here.

It would also make use of our existing resources.

This would definitely be the largest and most ambitious project that has been announced by the economic development committee since it was formed.

And it’s good to see them come forward with something tangible that we can envision.

It would be nice to have Units 4 and 5 remain online with carbon capture and storage technology, but that’s not going to happen.

It would also be nice to see the Shand Power Station and Unit 6 at Boundary Dam – both very powerful units that create a lot of jobs – retrofitted with CCS technology, but that’s not a guarantee. We have to hope for the best, but be prepared for the day in which those facilities could also be shuttered.

There’s also no guarantee this polygeneration facility will happen, either. There are still lots of questions to be answered, everything from where it would be located, to when it would open, to how much it would cost.

We have to remember that Thursday marked the signing of a memorandum of understanding, not the final go-ahead or a ground-breaking for the project.

But this is still an encouraging development for our community, to have an announcement of something that could happen, that isn’t just an abstract thought, and would employ hundreds of people.

It’s also a reminder that there are a lot of good people in the community who are working hard now to find resolutions to these challenges facing our city, rather than waiting until 2024, when Unit 4 will already be closed and Unit 5’s closure will be imminent.

Economic development tends to happen slowly. It can be best described as glacial, and it can require a lot of time without positive results.

It’s also something that is typically hush-hush. If someone steps out and announces something too soon, the partners often are quick to bail.

That’s why it often seems like nothing is happening, even if there is a lot that is occurring.

So it’s imperative to have these discussions now, do all we can to move forward now, and find the ways to create jobs in the community, with both big and small projects.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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