From eyesore to emission-free electricity

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[mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]W[/mk_dropcaps]HEN THE SUBJECT of our collective energy future arises, the conversation invariably includes the role renewables will play in our future mix. Indeed, targets for the inclusion of solar, wind and biomass feature prominently in energy-strategy statements from governments at all levels and from around the world.

Falling prices for wind and solar electricity are certainly improving the business case for renewable energy projects. Technical challenges remain, however, chief among them being intermittency, that is, how to keep grids fed by renewables humming when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/3″][mk_image src=”http://www.energy-exchange.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/08367243.jpg” image_width=”800″ image_height=”350″ crop=”false” lightbox=”true” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”outside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″ title=”John Wright, the lead developer of Northland Power’s Marmora project, stands in front of a water-filled abandoned mine near Marmora, Ont., that the company plans to use to build a 400-megawatt pumped-storage hydro facility to store surplus energy for use on demand.” desc=”SHAWN MCCARTHY/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Various solutions are being implemented and developed worldwide. One unique example is being proposed in Marmora, Ont., a town in the middle of cottage country halfway between Ottawa and Toronto. There, Northland Power is in pursuit of a double-barreled vision, one that has the potential to increase the reliability of renewable energy — and bring new life to a local eyesore.

A kilometre and a half southeast of Marmora’s main drag — home to a quaint cafe and boutiques — lies the Marmoraton mine, which closed in the late 1970s after some 25 years of producing iron ore for Bethlehem Steel. All that’s left of the operation, which once employed 300 workers, is a 200-metre-deep open pit and a mountain of slag — 70 million tonnes of the stuff.

Where some see an unsightly mess, John Wright, the lead developer of Northland’s Marmora project, sees 400 megawatts of potential power. The reason? Northland intends to bring the site back to life as a pumped-storage hydro facility, a place where emissions-free electricity can be generated on demand.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]As Ontario continues to add renewables to its grid — by spring 2015, wind and solar alone will account for 7,000 megawatts — it must also develop backup systems to meet demand when wind or solar power is not available. The province’s current electricity system isn’t exactly nimble; you can’t just turn down a nuclear reactor if there’s a sudden surplus in the system, and ramping up the natural gas fleet to cover sags is costly and slow. That’s where operations such as Marmora come in.

Northland, which has a portfolio of wind and solar projects both in Canada and abroad, plans to reshape the slag into a massive reservoir (lined with asphalt or thick plastic to prevent settling and leaks) above the old mine pit. It will then use surplus or off-peak power to pump the reservoir full of water — three Rogers Centre’s worth — from the abandoned mine below. When that power is needed on the grid, Northland will send the water cascading back into the pit, a drop almost five times the height of Niagara Falls, immediately feeding large amounts of electricity into the grid. “We’re a pretty substantial sponge and we can return that power to the system as carbon-free energy when it’s needed,” Wright says.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Wright has been immersed in the Marmora project for several years and has taken dozens of politicians (and skeptical locals) to tour the site. Not surprisingly, the township has come to wholeheartedly back the plan, which promises to create hundreds of permanent jobs and turn an erstwhile blot on the landscape into an attraction. Similar pumped storage facilities in the United States and United Kingdom draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. With rustic charm already in place, Marmora is a natural stop- off for families and tour buses, Wright says.

The Marmora project has yet to win approval from the province. And when it does, it will take two years of environmental review, plus four-and-a-half years of construction, before it’s up and running. But Wright is a believer. “This mine yielded minerals for years…. Now we’re taking the balance of it and turning it into a water-energy asset,” he says. “That’s about as good a lifecycle for the use of the Earth as you can get.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]by Dawn Calleja and Niki Wilson[/vc_column_text][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][mk_button dimension=”three” size=”large” outline_skin=”dark” outline_active_color=”#fff” outline_hover_color=”#333333″ bg_color=”#13bdd2″ text_color=”light” url=”/resources/energy-exchange-magazine/issue-4/” target=”_self” align=”left” fullwidth=”true” margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”15″ animation=”scale-up”]READ MORE STORIES FROM THE SUMMER 2015 ISSUE OF ENERGY EXCHANGE MAGAZINE[/mk_button][/vc_column][/vc_row]