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Ontario power utility burns wood in a move away from coal

The Globe And Mail: Shawn McCarthy - March 19, 2010

Ontario Power Generation is turning to the oldest source of fuel known to man - wood - to supply electric power as it moves to end its use of coal but keep in operation its four coal-fired generating stations.

OPG is just one of a number of power companies in Europe and North America planning to employ biomass - essentially wood waste or other non-food agricultural crops - to either replace coal or mix with fossil fuel in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The provincially owned utility (formerly the generating arm of Ontario Hydro) put out a call yesterday to potential suppliers of 90,000 tonnes of wood pellets to feed its Atikokan generating station, a 200-megawatt coal-burning plant west of Thunder Bay.

It will assess the potential supply and price before determining whether to proceed with the project, and whether to expand it to other Ontario locations in Thunder Bay, Lambton and Nanticoke.

Biomass-fired power generation could be a lucrative new market for struggling forestry companies, and represents a costly but low-emission power source for electricity producers.

Nova Scotia Power Inc. is pursuing its own plans to combine forestry biomass with coal to reduce emissions and help meet the province's ambitious renewable energy targets. Some 28 American states have mandates for renewable energy for power generation, and several utilities, including giant Duke Energy Corp., are planning to use biomass, primarily in combination with coal.

OPG, which produces 65 per cent of Ontario's electricity, is under orders from the Liberal government to phase out its coal use by 2014 as part of the province's climate change strategy. But the utility does not want to abandon the plants.

"We've set out on a program to look at each of the four coal plants and retaining some capacity at each of them using biomass or perhaps a combination of biomass and natural gas," said Chris Young, OPG's vice-president of thermal generation development.

Mr. Young said the planners are even considering growing energy crops - fast- growing trees or grasses - on former tobacco lands to fuel its Southwestern Ontario power plants. It has launched a study to determine the viability of such "purpose grown" biomass.

While a new, stand-alone biomass power plant would be prohibitively expensive, OPG believes it makes economic sense to preserve the viability of existing plants at less capacity rather than close them.

The biomass-fuelled plants would also complement the province's growing fleet of wind farms. At the same time, the coal-fired stations represent key lynchpins in the province's transmission system.

In a study earlier this year, University of Toronto engineer Heather MacLean found using biomass would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 91 per cent compared with a coal plant of similar capacity, if the wood is harvested using sustainable forest practices.

"Definitely, it is very key that we assume the regrowth of the forest," Ms. MacLean said yesterday. Biomass is considered "carbon neutral" because the trees absorb carbon dioxide when they are growing, and the emission of CO{-2} from a power plant would merely replicate its release when the biomass decays naturally.