Canada’s coal future

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”20″][mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]A[/mk_dropcaps]bout 200 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, the main stack of the Atikokan generating station rises above a landscape of northwestern Ontario boreal forest. Opened as a coal-fired power plant in 1985, the 205 megawatt peak-output facility hasn’t burned a gram of the fossil fuel since September 2012.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”15″]The power plant is in the final stages of its conversion to 100 per cent biomass consumption — a $170-million modification that will see it adding to the Ontario power grid for years. The biomass material itself, certified sustainably harvested wood-fibre pellets from Ontario forests, is lauded both as an integral, promising part of the Ontario government’s concerted effort to banish coal from its energy mix before the end of 2014 and as a means of injecting new life into the Atikokan economy, which had previously suffered from a decline in the forestry sector. (The entire project is creating more than 3,200 jobs, says one study, a number of which will benefit local First Nations communities.) The plant’s continued output will also be key as the provincial government moves closer to developing Northern Ontario’s multibillion-dollar “Ring of Fire” mineral belt.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][mk_custom_box border_width=”1″ bg_color=”#d9d9d9″ bg_position=”left top” bg_repeat=”repeat” bg_stretch=”false” padding_vertical=”5″ padding_horizental=”5″ margin_bottom=”0″ min_height=”100″][mk_gallery images=”7652″ column=”1″ height=”500″ frame_style=”simple” disable_title=”false” image_quality=”1″ pagination=”false” count=”10″ pagination_style=”1″ order=”ASC” orderby=”date”][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″ el_class=”Image-Description”]Ontario’s Lambton generating station stopped using coal in 2013 and no longer operates.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″ el_class=”Photo-Caption”]PHOTO: GARTH LENZ[/vc_column_text][/mk_custom_box][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]It’s a small part of a province-wide picture. The nearby Thunder Bay generating station is also changing from coal to biomass, while on the last day of 2013, North America’s largest coal-fired plant, the 1,880-megawatt-capacity Nanticoke thermal generating station on Lake Erie’s north shore, was decommissioned. Each closure or transformation (of 19 original coal units) is a cog in Ontario’s intricate energy plan.

Yet it still seemed almost far-fetched when in November 2013 Premier Kathleen Wynne, with climate-change crusader Al Gore at her side, was able to announce coal’s elimination. Far-fetched, perhaps, because a mere decade before, the carbon-rich substance made up a full quarter of the province’s power supply, generating 41 million tonnes of annual carbon emissions. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment is proud to say that its project’s final steps will lower Ontario’s carbon footprint from electricity by an astonishing 75 per cent and will save $4.4 billion in health-care and other costs.

Overhauls of this magnitude are not without their challenges. Ontario could only be weaned off coal thanks to a number of new natural gas generating stations and more than a decade of ramped-up electricity production at the world’s largest operating nuclear plant, the Bruce Power generating station on Lake Huron. The province now relies on the facility for around 30 per cent of its electricity. Ontario has also started to lean harder on the newer green energies: wind, for example, made up 3.4 per cent of all power supply in 2013 — up from 1.6 per cent in 2009.

Whereas Ontario phased out coal at top speed (all things being relative: the plan was announced in 2003) and with uncompromising legislation, new federal regulations, set in 2012, are more forgiving. Environment Canada requires that new coal-fired generating stations comply with a greenhouse gas emissions standard (measured in mass of carbon dioxide released per unit of energy produced) that effectively matches the level of emissions from today’s high-efficiency natural gas-fired power generating stations. To meet these goals, coal-fired power plants will need to install carbon-capture and storage technology. For the moment, this technology can be prohibitively expensive, which means that nobody is likely to build new coal-fired plants under the federal regulations, which will come into effect within 15 years. Additionally, these regulations provide substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, with a further drop by 2030, and they’re more stringent than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering. These rules would also have put almost all coal
plants in Ontario out of service by 2020.[/vc_column_text][mk_blockquote style=”line-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]The Ontario Ministry of the Environment is proud to say that its project’s final steps will lower Ontario’s carbon footprint from electricity by an astonishing 75 per cent.[/mk_blockquote][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Meanwhile, Ontario continues its foray into coal alternatives, sourcing biomass fuel (a small but growing fraction of the province’s energy mix) from its forests. Among the benefits of biomass, says Chris Fralick, regional plant manager for Ontario Power Generation’s northwest operations, is that wood pellets release negligible amounts of acid rain-causing sulphur and, most importantly, none of the toxic mercury emissions associated with coal. And although burning any solid substance emits higher levels of particulates, equipment used in the former coal plants — “electrostatic precipitators” — can remove 99.9 per cent of the ash matter released by the wood.

Beginning in late 2014, the Thunder Bay power plant will use an especially progressive variety of this biofuel. “Advanced biomass,” known in the industry as “black pellets,” is still at an early commercial stage of development. The fuel is produced from the same sort of wood fibre as the “white” wood pellets used at the Atikokan facility, but its highly pressurized production process means it has a higher energy density, produces virtually no dangerous combustible dust, and is hydrophobic (water repellent). It can be treated like coal and stored outdoors rather than in silos, subjected to the elements for extended periods without losing its burning potential or turning to mush. For the time being, at least, advanced biomass is not being harvested or manufactured in the region. “But,” says Fralick, “I’m hopeful that there will be a local option to produce it in Ontario in the near future.”

Both power plants will be increasingly important to the northwestern Ontario power grid, a reliable supplement for the 690 megawatts of mainly hydroelectric power that provides the baseload in the area. “Biomass is the only dispatchable renewable electricity,” explains Fralick. “It’s there when you want it, at peak hours or when intermittent renewable energies such as wind die down.”

The Atikokan and Thunder Bay plant conversions, however, are also tests of sorts, invaluable for determining the viability of biomass for mothballed coal-fired generating stations in other regions where additional capacity will be needed some day. “We’re on the leading edge here,” says Fralick. “Atikokan will be the largest 100 per cent biomass plant in North America, and to our knowledge, Thunder Bay will be the only plant in the world operating on advanced biomass. And converting these plants to biomass is cheaper than building something new; we’re leading the charge on making the best use of these assets — plants that are already owned by the people of Ontario.” [mk_font_icons icon=”icon-stop” size=”small” padding_horizental=”4″ padding_vertical=”4″ circle=”false” align=”none”][/vc_column_text][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]- Nick Walker[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]