INSIDE NANTICOKE:Dead plant walking
TheStar.com: Catherine Porter & Tyler Hamilton - Feb 02, 2008
For years, Canada's biggest contributor to global warming has been on death row. But there's a good reason the coal-guzzling power station is still alive: We need it!!
NANTICOKE, Ont.-Travelling south along Route 55, there are few warning signs you are approaching the country's most-wanted polluter. The rolling hills are decorated with languorous cows. Poultry barns and corn silos flash by. A farmer in a baseball cap fishes out his mail from a rusty box.
It's a picture of Ontario pastoral, except for the menacing procession of transmission towers that look like giant metal scarecrows flashing through the trees. They lead down to Lake Erie, gleaming silver in the winter sun, and to a black mountain and two tall, puffing smokestacks. As you get closer, you can pick out what appear to be miniature yellow trucks climbing the mountain's switchbacks. And finally, the sign: Ontario Power Generation. No Trespassing.
This is the Nanticoke electricity plant. It has the dubious honour of being both Ontario's leading spewer of toxic emissions that cause acid rain and smog, and the country's biggest source of greenhouse gases - those villainous brews causing the atmosphere to warm.
For years, it's been on death row, first sentenced by the Ontario government to dismantlement in 2007, then 2009, and now 2014.
In the meantime, it continues to operate like that 15-year-old Honda Civic that never lets you down. It dutifully responds when summoned, cranking out electricity that, for most of us, is a lifeline.
When you arrive home after a long day and flip on the lights, you are connected to Nanticoke. Turn on the coffee maker the next morning and Nanticoke helps brew your java. And every sweltering summer day, when you collapse in an air-conditioned room, you can thank Nanticoke.
It's as essential to our daily lives as the water flowing from our taps and the trucks collecting our garbage.
Last summer, when OPG had to unexpectedly shut down two nuclear reactors for several months, the province leaned on Nanticoke.
"Nanticoke has fulfilled its duty in Ontario when demand was high, when things went wrong, when the nuclear plants weren't working, and when the ice storm hit," says Amir Shalaby, vice-president of system planning at the Ontario Power Authority.
Nanticoke is the mothership of coal-fired electricity plants, the biggest in North America. When all eight of its generators are at full blast, it can produce 4,040 megawatts of electricity - enough to power all of Toronto. Yet, few know about it.
"Until recently, most people thought we got all our power from Niagara Falls. We still call it hydro, even though that hasn't supplied the majority of our electricity for 50 years," says Keith Stewart, a climate-change campaigner with WWF-Canada, and co-author of Hydro: The Decline and Fall of Ontario's Electric Empire. Bolstering that misconception was a provincial electricity policy that kept consumers figuratively in the dark, he says.
"It was 'Don't think about it. Don't worry about it. Leave it to the experts and make it as invisible as possible,' " says Stewart, adding that it's no coincidence Nanticoke was built behind a big fence, far from a city.
But, just as consumers have begun questioning the working conditions behind their Nike shoes and the chemicals sprayed on their vegetables, there's a blossoming concern about where our power comes from.
"The problem is," says Stewart, "there is no label coming out of the wall plug."
To understand how our electricity is made, you have to go to the source. You have to drive southwest from Hamilton on a two-lane highway to Nanticoke.
EVERYTHING about Nanticoke is bogglingly big.
The facility spans 800 acres - twice the size of High Park. On one side is a massive "coal pit" the size of a small ski hill that can hold 2.5 million tonnes of coal. It's the company's version of a squirrel nut pile, enough fuel to get it through three months of winter, when the lake freezes and ships can't get through.
The plant - called the "powerhouse" - could comfortably house five football fields. It's so large that employees get around on three-wheeled bicycles, the kind you'd see in Beijing. It gulps two Olympic-sized pools worth of water from the lake each day to produce steam.
Stepping inside, you feel like Alice in Wonderland after she's chugged the shrinking potion; a "quick" tour is impossible.
Abandoned work equipment lies around. Screws, nails and crumpled duct tape accumulate in corners. Equipment is caked with fly ash and black grime, and the levels of the aging plant are connected by a maze of twisting pipes, ducts, and stairs like a game of snakes and ladders.
Unlike a tour of a nuclear plant, which is so clean you could eat off the floor, there's nothing sparkling about Nanticoke.
Dirt and debris aside, the place exudes raw power.
But it rarely exerts its full muscle. Instead, since it began operating 36 years ago, it's been the province's trusted energy weapon, only fully summoned during the panicked "peak" hours of the day to keep the system from crashing.
Unlike hydro and nuclear power, the province's constant energy workhorses, Nanticoke can quickly be fired up or turned down at a moment's notice.
It can ramp up its output by 11,000 kilowatts a minute - almost 15 times the electricity generated by the CNE wind turbine. In four hours, it can go from idle to full throttle.
"We're the swing fuel," explains Frank Chiarotto, the plant's long-time manager, before pulling on his steel-toed shoes and hard hat for a tour of the plant. "We're the ones that chase the megawatts."
But, even on most idle days, it produces about 8 per cent of the province's electricity. On days like last Aug. 2, when temperatures hit 37.6 degrees in Toronto and electricity operators were bracing themselves for record-breaking demand, Nanticoke fuelled 16 per cent of the province.
By last year, Nanticoke had generated 1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to run the province for three years.
TODAY, Nanticoke would never be built. But, in the late '60s, few had heard of acid rain or global warming.
"Nobody really wants coal-fired plants any more," says Thomas Reynolds, the former Ontario Hydro employee who picked the location for Nanticoke. "It was obviously a good location. Good flat country. Good access to water for ships. It was basically just farmland, and we were able to offer money people would accept," says Reynolds, now 78.
The area has grown up since then. So has concern over air quality.
Nanticoke is the province's largest single emitter of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide - the grim twins of acid rain and smog. Every year, it also pumps out 17.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, known to cause global warming.
Nanticoke's owner, Ontario Power Generation, has tried over the years to limit those pollutants and recycle its waste. For example, it sends avout half of its coal ash - what's left over after the coal is burned - to cement plants. Heavier ash drops to the bottom of the boiler, but 80 per cent of it are fine particles - like specks of calcium and aluminum - called "fly ash" that waft out the smokestacks.
That's hard on the lungs and some of the trace materials, including arsenic, cadmium and mercury, are linked to cancer.
All eight Nanticoke units now use special equipment called electrostatic precipitators to capture 99 per cent of that dust by attracting it to electrically charged metal plates, just like the furnace filter in many homes.
Precipitators don't capture nitrogen oxides, though.
Recently, giant selective catalytic reduction devices were installed on two of Nanticoke's units. It took 1,000 contractors three years to build them, at a cost of $125 million. They mix ammonia gas with the rising flu gas, turning 85 per cent of the nitrogen oxides into water and nitrogen, a harmless gas.
"We run a huge chemical plant that produces electricity," says Chiarotto, pointing to the giant metal duct crammed between the powerhouse and the precipitators. But those are on only two of Nanticoke's units. And the plant doesn't have scrubbers to chemically remove sulphur dioxide fumes. Instead, it now buys mostly low-sulphur coal from the United States, dropping its sulphur dioxide emissions by more than half over the past two decades.
That comes at a price, though. The lower sulphur coal doesn't pack as much heat - which means Nanticoke has to burn more of it.
Some, like Carol Chudy, say it would be smarter to add more pollution controls than close mighty Nanticoke. She's the co-chair of a group called the Clean Affordable Energy Alliance, which argues coal has been demonized in Ontario to make way for natural gas - a cleaner, but increasingly pricey, alternative.
"Our premise is, let's keep the plants open, and clean them up, until we can transition to something more viable," says Chudy, whose father helped build Nanticoke.
But, as effective as emission controls are, they don't address coal's biggest problem: greenhouse gases.
Coal plants produce a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions - the major greenhouse gas behind our warming atmosphere.
Of the world's 50,000 coal-fired electricity plants, Nanticoke ranks 65th for its carbon emissions. It's the biggest single emitter in Canada - bigger even than Alberta's infamous tar sands.
Some proponents, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, argue "clean coal" technology will save the day, allowing the carbon dioxide to be captured and buried underground or fed to algae farms. But those approaches are expensive and unproven. So far no utility has managed to do it on a large enough scale to make a difference.
"CO2 is the Achilles heel for the argument of using emission-control technologies," Shalaby says.
That's why the province plans to shut down Nanticoke, and replace it with emission-free nuclear power, natural gas - which releases half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned - and clean renewables like wind and solar. Negotiating contracts with Quebec to import some of its abundant hydro power is also on the table.
"It will not be a one-to-one replacement of coal. It will be a combination of things," he says. "Together they will tailor something that will function like coal has in the past."
HOW NANTICOKE GENERATES POWER:
NANTICOKE, Ont.-How power is generated hasn't changed much since Thomas Edison invented the coal-fired electricity plant more than a century ago.
"We release the heat from coal to boil water to spin a turbine to generate electricity," says Nanticoke plant manager Frank Chiarotto, who's spent his entire 33-year career tinkering in coal plants.
But understanding the concept and seeing it in action are two different things.
This cold morning, a 200-metre-long ship arrives at Nanticoke, weighed down with a "small" 30,000-tonne cargo of coal that will take eight hours to unload. A "large" shipment is double that.
During peak season, when the weather is hot and air conditioners across southern Ontario are humming, Nanticoke sucks back one shipment a day.
A long arm-like boom moves the black cargo from the ship into a dockside bunker. From there the golf ball-sized chunks continue their long journey from fossil to fuel along a system of conveyor belts into the Nanticoke powerhouse or to the pit.There are 40 bunkers inside Nanticoke, each feeding the coal into a "pulverizer" - essentially a giant pepper mill that grinds the coal into black powder.
Warm air blows the coal dust through a pipe into a boiler, where it violently combusts in a chamber equipped with 40 burners. From a nearby control room, engineers watch over the flames - hotter than lava - on computer screens, broadcasting what looks like a live video from the pits of hell.
"It lets us see the quality of the fire we're getting," says Rob Fetter, the plant's fossil operating supervisor.
The control room is a mix of equipment cobbled together over three decades. It houses about 100 screens, together monitoring 50,000 items in the plant, including water flow, steam temperature and emissions.
Running all this equipment takes a lot of power. Nanticoke consumes about 3 per cent of its own output - enough to power all of Kingston.
Getting that power is all about creating heat, or thermal energy. As the coal burns, it superheats water being pumped through the core of each boiler. The water doesn't just boil; it reaches 540 degrees and turns into an intensely hot, high-pressure flow of dry steam - about twice as hot as the highest setting on a kitchen oven. The steam is funnelled inside a series of turbines where, like air trying to escape a balloon, it forces their blades to spin.
A shaft connecting these turbines to a generator spins up to 3,600 revolutions every minute. This mechanical energy is converted into electricity. But to get it to our homes, it needs a strong push - or voltage.
The plant is flanked by a humming switchyard, where big-box transformers boost the voltage by up to 20 times to 500,000 volts, giving it enough kick to travel hundreds of kilometres across Southern Ontario.
Nanticoke doesn't just supply electricity. It acts like a pump, helping to keep the whole system flowing.
"It has become an anchor point," says Amir Shalaby, vice-president of system planning at the Ontario Power Authority, and the man in charge of figuring out how to power Ontario without Nanticoke. "Replacing it is not going to be easy."
BY THE NUMBERS:
210: Number of shiploads of coal to Nanticoke each year
8 billion kg: Amount of coal Nanticoke burned in 2006
650 feet: Height of the smoke stacks, one-third the size of the CN Tower
1,650 Celsius: Temperature at which the coal is burned
90 million kilowatts: Nanticoke's generating capacity over 24 hours
17.6 million tonnes: amount of greenhouse gases Nanticoke emits each year