February 26, 2020

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How To Get Off Coal With Biomass, The Atikokan Way

The Ontario provincial and federal governments are lighting the path to providing renewable energy at a reasonable cost.


By Francesca Rheannon

Part one of a three part series on renewable energy in Ontario, Canada

In September, I was invited by the Ontario provincial government on a press tour of renewable energy projects in the Canadian province. For three days, I and other journalists from the U.S. and the U.K., visited a plethora of innovative projects the government is supporting.

The projects ran the gamut from software programs to wring the most efficient use of energy out of the power grid; to groundbreaking fuel and solar cells, LEDs and flywheel engines; to power station conversion from coal to biomass; and more. They illustrate how public support for private and public enterprises in the renewable energy space is moving Ontario steadily toward its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.

This post reports on the conversion of the Atikokan Generating Station of Ontario Power Generation (OPG) from coal to 100% biomass-fired power.

Ontario: Canada’s Climate Hero?

Canada is much pilloried as a “climate criminal” these days. That's due to the environmental catastrophe unfolding at the Alberta Tar Sands mining operations, which are adding some of the most polluting forms of fossil fuel energy to the planet’s atmosphere, tar-sandsdestroying wildlife habitat and leaving the First Nations tribes in the area contending with elevated cancer rates. The devastation is visible from space.

But there's another Canadian energy story – a story about renewable power that shows how government, business and local communities can work together to boost jobs, grow the economy and slash carbon emissions. It's happening on the provincial level – and Ontario is one of the showcases for the effort.

Phasing out coal-fired power is a big slice of Ontario's plan to cut carbon emissions: the province is committed to close all coal fired power plants by 2014 – the first jurisdiction in North America to make that pledge.

It's no mean effort: at an estimated cost of $4.4 billion USD, getting off coal is shaping up to be “one of the largest single greenhouse gas reduction measures in North America,” according to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and is expected to reduce the province’s carbon footprint from electricity by 75%. In 2011, coal supplied 13% of Ontario's installed generation capacity.

Meeting the Challenge of Supplying Power On Demand

Although Canada has abundant wind resources, it is already beginning to exploit and depends on hydroelectric power for 27% of its energy, the major challenge of renewables like wind, solar and even hydro (during droughts) remains demand response—the ability to have the right amount of power whenever and wherever it's needed. (I'll discuss some other projects that are working on the storage and demand response capacity of renewables in another post.)

Until the storage and transmission issues can be solved well enough to bring wind and solar to scale, cutting carbon emissions will depend on efficiency and on finding lower carbon ways to generate power using existing infrastructure. Ontario’s publicly owned power company, OPG, decided that biomass in the form of wood-waste pellets could supply a solution, providing “fully dispatchable” renewable energy by converting coal plantsAtikokan-Biomass-Boiler to the new fuel.

But could it be done sustainably?

Biomass and Sustainability

Not all biomass is equal from a sustainability standpoint. Construction wood waste, for example, releases toxins into the atmosphere. Clearcutting forests and replacing them with industrial tree plantations endanger biodiversity. Stripping forests of all or most rotting material impoverishes the soil, preventing the healthy re-growth necessary to allow the forest to continue as a robust carbon sink.

OPG has pledged that all its biomass fuel sources must meet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change definition of renewable. Once the conversion is completed, it will use sawmill waste, logging residue, low-grade biomass and forest fire salvage wood, according to a study it commissioned. The study found:

Harvesting of low-grade and residual biomass for electricity production can be done in a way that forest carbon stocks do not systematically decline over a 100-year planning horizon.

The report lays out five principles to ensure sustainability:

  1. GHGEs produced by harvesting and burning biomass must balance the carbon stored in the forest;
  2. Burning biomass must produce significantly lower emissions than the coal being replaced;
  3. Biomass harvesting must maintain soil fertility, organic matter and pH;
  4. Water quality must be protected by maintaining riparian buffers and wetlands; integrated pest management (IPM) practices are followed;
  5. Wildlife habitat and rare, threatened or endangered species or ecosystems must be protected. The ecological functions and integrity of the forest should be maintained.

Slashing Emissions by 80%

The study found that biomass was superior to natural gas from an emissions standpoint:

Two million tonnes of wood pellets could produce 3.4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year – sufficient to power approximately 285,000 homes in Ontario. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, on average, compared to electricity produced by burning natural gas.

With those findings in hand, OPG began a coal-to-biomass conversion project at the Atikokan Generating Station in Northwestern Ontario. Prior to September 2012, the station produced approximately 200 MW of electricity, using low-sulphur lignite coal from Western Canada. On Sept. 11, 2012, Atikokan stopped using coal as fuel and the unit was shut down so the biomass conversion could get underway.

When it is completed in 2014, at a cost of $170 million Canadian dollars, the Atikokan generating station will be the largest biomass-fired power plant in North America. Wood pellets sourced from sustainably managed forests and a local sawmill will be burned in the world’s first specifically designed biomass burner, designed by Doosan Babcock.

Touring the Atikokan Generating Station

After passing through what seemed to be a landscape of endless conifer forests, our tour bus pulled into the Atikokan Generating Station about Atikokan-planttwo hours north of Thunder Bay.

The first sight to confront us were two giant concrete silos rising into the air. When finished, they will each store 5,000 tons of wood pellets.

We were ushered into the conference room in the main building of the power station, where we were greeted by the team making the biomass conversion happen, headed by station manager Brent Boyko.

The team’s enthusiasm for the project was palpable – and for a bunch of guys who had probably spent most of their careers working in fossil fuel power generation, they showed an impressive understanding of ESG issues.

Creating Local Jobs for the Local Community

Station manager Boyko stressed the project’s extensive outreach to the local community and First Nations people of Fort William. The area has been hit hard by a decline in forestry and the more recent economic crisis, with the First Nations reservation especially impacted.

But the biomass project will help alleviate the bleak jobs picture, with a long term contract promising jobs in harvesting, transportation and wood pellet production. The Resolute Sawmill on the Fort William reserve will add a pellet plant to its existing operation, converting waste into useful fuel. Boyko told our group:

The paper and pulp industry have been down because of the digital revolution and the decline of paper newspapers. If they can jumpstart the economy by having a big user of pellets like us, it will be an opportunity to get people back to work and manage the forest again.

And, Boyko informed us, a managed forest is actually a better carbon sink than one that is not managed.

“Green Business Is Big Business”

A lot is riding on the Atikokan biomass conversion project. The technological innovations it has put into practice alone put it on the map as a potential model for other such conversions—if they operate as expected. The federal and provincial governments see it as a “destiny project” for showcasing green business in Canada, and there is a lot of pressure to make it a success. It faces competition right now from natural gas, the price of which has plummeted.

But natural gas won’t be cheap forever; some analysts see soaring natural gas prices within a decade, if not sooner. And if carbon ever gets a price approaching its real cost, sustainable biomass will beat it hands down.

Meanwhile, if the Atikokan biomass plant can fulfill its promise of providing renewable energy on demand at a reasonable cost, it could light the path for getting off coal, not just in Canada, but everywhere.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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