OPG Nanticoke Testing Biomass

Tyler Hamilton: November 24, 2008

Nanticoke generating station in Haldimand County is the largest coal-fired power plant in North America and as the workhorse for Ontario's electricity system, shutting it down by 2014 won't be easy.

It employs 600 people. It's an anchor for the provincial power grid, providing the voltage support needed to push electricity around southern Ontario. It's capable of supplying 4,000 megawatts of power, or enough to supply 15 per cent of the province's electricity needs.

It's why Duncan Hawthorne, chief executive of nuclear operator Bruce Power, wants to build a new nuclear plant beside Nanticoke. It will create jobs and stimulate the economy, he argues. It will provide voltage support for the grid and more than replace the power lost when Nanticoke is mothballed (though we all know he wouldn't be able to build a new nuclear plant before 2014).

When Hawthorne proposed the new plant three weeks ago, Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman was quick to shoot him down. Smitherman has different plans for Nanticoke, and said in an interview last week he's "cautiously optimistic" it will work. The idea: burn biomass instead of coal.

"It's an exciting option," says Smitherman, who in September directed the Ontario Power Authority to look at ways to add more renewables to the grid. He specifically asked the power authority to explore the potential of burning biomass in coal-fired plants. "I think it's going to be about 18 months before we have enough information to know what is possible."

Figuring out how to burn biomass such as wood or switchgrass pellets could solve many problems at once. The government could make good on its commitment to phase out coal. It could keep a sizeable amount of electricity generation in the area without having to build new transmission lines or plants, whether nuclear or natural gas.

It could continue to provide some much-needed voltage support for the grid, meaning less need to install expensive gear to compensate for the voltage losses.

It could keep local jobs and potentially create even more. That's because instead of importing coal, which is a flow of capital out of the province, OPG's need for biomass would stimulate a local industry for collecting wood or agricultural waste and turning it into fuel pellets. If an energy crop like switchgrass or poplar is chosen, it would also create opportunities for farmers that have seen markets for tobacco and ginseng disappear.

Most of all, it would lead to much cleaner power. Sulphur dioxide from biomass, particularly wood, only exists in trace amounts. There's no mercury. There are nitrogen oxides emissions, but far less than burning coal and some units at Nanticoke have selective catalytic reduction systems that can remove much of those emissions. Pollution-control equipment at Nanticoke that keeps soot and other particulates from entering the air can also be used for biomass.

That leaves greenhouse gases. When you burn wood or agricultural waste it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning coal. The difference is that the CO2 that enters the air is theoretically carbon-neutral that is, it gets reabsorbed in new plant growth. I say theoretically because it assumes biomass harvested is plant life that's replaced.

Coal, which contains CO2 absorbed by plant life millions of year ago, releases "new" CO2 when it is dug up and burned. So, from a climate-change perspective, burning biomass is better than burning coal because it doesn't increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. In fact, wood and agricultural waste ends up decaying anyway, and this releases methane a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Dozens of Scandinavian power plants in burn biomass as fuel. In August, Atlanta-based Georgia Power asked its local electricity regulator if it could convert one of its 100-megawatt coal plants to wood.

Some jurisdictions are looking at burning coal together with biomass, but Chunbao Xu, a professor of chemical engineering at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay who is working on OPG's biomass program, says it makes sense to burn 100 per cent biomass rather than blend it.

The ash that results from burning coal is currently sold to the cement industry as an additive, says Xu, and blending it with biomass contaminates that ash. While the ash from pure biomass can't be used in cement, it can be used for waste treatment or as a sodium- and potassium-rich fertilizer for agriculture. "There are many different uses," he says.

Xu and OPG are working together to solve some technical issues with burning biomass. The ash can build up on boilers and heat-transfer units, potentially reducing operating life and requiring more maintenance, at an added cost.

OPG is testing biomass on all four of its coal plants. Grain screenings have been burned at Thunder Bay generating station and Lambton station will soon be testing dried distillers grain, a by-product of ethanol production.

The Atikokan plant successfully burned only wood pellets in July for one day. A three-day test will be conducted in early December.

Chris Young, vice-president of business development for OPG's fossil fuels division, is confident in the potential of biomass. "We don't believe there will be insurmountable technical issues, particularly around Atikokan."

Atikokan will likely be the first plant converted to biomass. Its boilers are better suited to burning biomass, it can receive fuel by railcar and wood supply from forest slash and sawmill residue is plentiful in northern Ontario.

But Young admits that Nanticoke is the "big prize" for Ontario and OPG is working toward the longer-term goal of converting as many as four of Nanticoke's eight units.

Coal can be stored outside, exposed to the weather, but biomass can't. That means large enclosed storage areas would be necessary. The biggest challenge, however, would be making sure there is adequate supply of biomass fuel.

Young says OPG is talking with forest-product companies about supply issues. "What we intend to do is work through a competitive supply process with the forest and agriculture industry," he says.

The company has made clear it will not use food crops and it doesn't want to compete with other industrial users of biomass and drive up the market price of the fuel. Instead, it envisions signing a long-term contract for biomass supply that assures stable pricing, secure supply and the economies of scale that can turn niche markets into massive industry.

"We're talking about a different paradigm," he says. "It's a good equation for Ontario, but the economics of it all still have to be tested."

Getting the same amount of power from biomass as that provided from burning coal does cost more. But given the savings that would come from using an existing plant and the stability of signing a long-term contract for fuel, it may be a premium worth paying.

Factor in the benefits to the climate, the environment and the local economy and it could very well be a bargain.

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