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Guelph organizations are leaders in study examing whether crops can replace coal as fuel

Guelphmercury.com: Jul8, 2010

A number of Guelph-based agricultural organizations are taking the lead in a $2.4 million study aimed at determining if plant material can replace coal as a fuel for power plants in Ontario.

The study has urgency given that both the Nanticoke and Lambton power generating stations in southern Ontario will be weaned off coal by the end of 2014.

Harold Rudy, executive director of Guelph-based Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, a lead organization in the study, said biomass has proven to be an effective energy generator, particularly in the greenhouse industry. But while small-scale uses have been successful, it remains to be seen if the large-scale needs of power generation can be met in a timely manner by energy crops.

“There is currently no infrastructure in place to provide large quantities,” Ruby said, speaking of one of the stumbling blocks to producing plant-based alternatives to coal.

Farmers would need to reconfigure their operations to grow specific crops, and processing facilities would need to be in place to turn those crops into things like pellets or briquettes.

Rudy said more scientific investigation is needed to fully understand the burning properties of certain types of crops. He said farmers are currently being enlisted to participate in the study, and the University of Guelph will be a partner in the research.

Piles of coal could be replaced with biomass pellets in the not too distant future if it makes economic and environmental sense to grow dedicated, renewable crops like miscanthus, switchgrass and native prairie grasses as carbon neutral alternatives to non-renewable fuels, said those involved in the study.

Funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the study will help determine if the process is viable.

“It is hugely significant because the province has said it will be off coal by 2014,” said Bette Jean Crews, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president. OFA is a partner in the study.

Crews said the perennial crops will take about three years to mature, and it is not yet known which varieties will grow best in different soil types, or which will have the most optimum heat generating capacities.

She said a commitment by Ontario Power Generation to purchase biomass product after it is grown would go a long way toward encouraging farmers to grow energy crops.

“Until Ontario Power Generation says they are actually going to buy it, and what they are going to pay for it, farmers need that information before they can do the math and see whether they can afford to grow it,” she said.

A lot of research needs to be done in a short amount of time, she added.

“The science is there that says it can be pelletized and burned in exactly the same process as coal, which is why we are looking at it for Nanticoke,” she said. “You don’t have to change the infrastructure at Nanticoke significantly to put pellets in instead of coal.”

Another Guelph-based agency, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, brought various partners together to iron out the study proposal, and found private sector investors for it, said president Gord Surgeoner.

“A whole bunch of infrastructure and knowledge has to be created,” Surgeoner said. “One element is going to be a complete life cycle analysis to ensure there is economic profitability to the producer, and that it is a net positive on the energy side of the equation.”

A full greenhouse gas analysis is also part of the study, he said. Crops will be grown in a number of different soil types across the province.

“We can bulk up the amount of crop fairly rapidly, but I don’t want our farmers going out and investing a lot of money before we know what the economics are going to be,” he added. “And Ontario Power Generation doesn’t want to convert all of its furnaces until they know they are going to have a supply. So this is really filling in that gap.”

About 900 acres of commercial farmland will be involved in the project. Go online to www.ontariosoilcrop.org/biomass.htm to learn more.