Can North America’s largest coal plant convert to biomass?

My Clean Break column today takes a closer look at efforts by Ontario Power Generation to convert some of its coal-fired generating assets into biomass-burning power plants, including potentially several units at its Nanticoke Generating Station — North America’s largest coal plant. The provincial Liberal government has vowed to shut down the last of Ontario’s coal plants by 2014, and biomass conversion is being seriously considered as a way of partially getting there. It’s an ambitious undertaking, given the scale of such a project, but successfully making it happen would solve many problems with one solution.

Shutting down Nanticoke, while a good move for environmental reasons, will cause many headaches in the area. More jobs will be lost in a region of the province already suffering from economic decline. Mothballing Nanticoke leaves a 4,000 megawatt hole in Ontario’s grid. And the loss of that generation takes away some crucial voltage support for the entire electricity system. By converting three or four of the eight units at Nanticoke into biomass and shutting down the rest, some jobs can be kept, some voltage support and generation is kept, fewer new plants or transmission projects are needed in the area, and the large demand for biomass can create a local supply chain that could provide a significant boost to the regional economy.

OPG has tested biomass burns and blends at all four of its plants — Nanticoke, Thunder Bay, Atikokan and Lambton — but so far the most progress has been at Atikokan, a 200-megawatt plant that in July successfully burned 100 per cent wood pellets for a day. A three-day burn is scheduled for early December, and OPG officials say Atikokan will likely be the first plant converted to biomass. After that, attention will likely turn to Nanticoke, which has so far co-fired wood pellets and wheat shorts with coal as part of tests.

Blending isn’t the final objective. Blending produces ash that can’t be used by the cement industry, like coal ash, and can’t be used as fertilizer, like pure biomass ash. But getting to 100 per cent biomass burn has some technical issues, including the impact on equipment (i.e. soot buildup and the extra maintenance required to clean it) and the difficulty of establishing a secure supply chain. The latter issue is what OPG considers its biggest challenge, given the huge volumes of locally produced, non-food biomass it would require.

Despite these challenges, it’s encouraging to see the province moving in this direction. I don’t think converting coal plants to biomass is a long-term solution, but it’s a good medium-term solution that will create a stable local supply chain. As the remaining Nanticoke units are retired, the biomass can go toward supporting the emergence of more efficient combined heat and power (CHP) plants distributed throughout the area.

12 thoughts on “Can North America’s largest coal plant convert to biomass?”

  1. Ontario shouldn’t be shutting down anything until new (renewable?) power generation facilities are in place. Also, I’ve heard convincing arguments for burning peat in place of coal–fewer toxins, etc. That would also provide jobs in NW Ontario where there are huge deposits. The worst solution is to close our coal plants and buy power from other provinces or states that use coal. Italy refuses to build nuclear plants, yet they buy half their power from France and pay far higher rates than French customers. Is that the logic to be applied in Ontario? Good grief!

  2. Someone in your column comments mentioned torrefaction. There is a Cdn company from BC working on something similar. They claim they can transform biomass into a coal like fuel, with similar properties. Have a look:

  3. The Ontario Liberal government policy of closing Ontario’s coal-fired generating stations was a purely political move with no valid scientific basis.

    Approximately 2 – 4% of air emissions affecting Ontario were produced by those stations, even when Lakeview GS was still operating.

    Closing Nanticoke GS would have little perceptible impact on air quality in Ontario, and most particularly, at ground level where residents breathe.

    And as for so-called CO2 “pollution”, Sithe Energies’ proposed Southdown Power Plant is projected to emit about the same amount that Lakeview GS did during its last few years of operation. That’s right – virtually no difference in greenhouse gas emissions – but more costly electricity as a result. And how is that “cleaner”, pray tell?

    Lakeview Generating Station should have been refurbished and modified to accept biomass as a feed supplement. 30% co-firing of biomass has been shown to reduce emissions down to levels similar to those from natural gas-fired installations, and at a considerably lower cost, resulting in less expensive electricity.

    And other emissions could be cleaned up, since “clean-coal” technologies have been effectively utilized in Europe now for over twenty years. On top of that, it is done mainly with lignite, which is “dirtier” than the coal we use in Ontario.

    Instead, after premier McGuinty assured residents in 2005 that closing Lakeview would not affect the power supply available, we in the southwest section of the Toronto area are being told that we must accept new highly polluting natural gas-fired power plants in our communities because – there is insufficient supply of electricity!!!

    McGuinty’s inept government and their mishandling of Ontario’s electricity sector doesn’t even qualify them to perform at the level of Bozo the Clown (with apologies to Bozo for comparing him to McGuinty and his government).

    Again, the taxpayer is left to pay for government incompetence.

  4. Tyler Hamilton’s piece points up the radical risk to the environment that converting coal-fired
    generating plants to “biomass” poses.
    The biggest issue apparently isn’t technical but an ample
    supply of fuel, but once big US and Canadian coal plants invest heavily, with government subsides,
    no doubt, in switching to “biomass,” it will be hard to turn back. “Biomass” for all practical
    purposes will become trees, any tree regardless of its inherent value as lumber. Every tree within a 1,000 mile radius of such huge gen plants as Nanticoke will be be chewed up where it stands (and the industry will no doubt figure a economical way to harvest the roots as well) and trucked or railcared to those never-to-be sated boilers. In a generation, the entire landscape would look
    like West Virginia 100 years ago when coal stripping mining was allow. Why bother to cut and mill 2x4s when wood as fuel will yield double or triple per ton of lumber. A 2×4 will cost $10 each!
    Tyler Hamilton: Do some ground-breaking reporting and warn North Americans about what an
    economic and ecological disaster Western countries would create by burning wood to satisfy our
    demand for electrity.
    Jim Adams

  5. I worked out how much biomass it would take for the Nanticoke plant to run year round. Assuming switchgrass growth, that’s an area about 90 km by 90 km. Huge. And that’s just for one plant. The amount of wood and agricultural waste generated in Canada alone would barely be enough for Nanticoke, and certainly not enough if all the coal-fired plants were to switch to biomass.

    Burning biomass is not the solution for large scale power generation, due to massive land requirements. There is growing evidence that renewables such as wind power are the way to go long term, and this is just one part of the proof.

  6. Would like to know how you got to the 90 km by 90 km figure. Seems quite high.

    With Nanticoke, it’s important to consider only two or three of its eight units would be used and those units would only be retained as “peaker” units, meaning they’d run occasionally when demand is exceptionally high or be kept as reserve power for emergencies. That being the case, only a fraction of the biomass that you calculated would actually be needed.

  7. My figure was for all eight units running year round, producing 4000 megawatts in total. The details of the calc are in my website if you’re curious.

    So you’re saying that two or three of the units would be used, but only as peakers and emergency power. It’s my understanding that, in particular, peakers must be able to start and stop within a short period of time to match peak demand. Peaker plants generally use a fuel like natural gas because it enables the turbines to start and shut down quickly. Is Nanticoke able to be operated as a peaker plant? It seems to be more suited for baseload power generation because it needs a long time to warm up and get going. And that’s partly to do with the nature of using coal as fuel, and biomass is not that much different. What do you think?

  8. I understand you can bio dry biosolids and use them as a biomass fuel. Eliminate coal, stop land applying biosolids in our fields, and produce a renewable fuel. That sounds like something Ontario should be pursuing doesn’t it? The technology appears to be sound, Canadian, and readily available…… TODAY!

  9. I don’t think biomass is better than coal. To make biomass it would require the use of Diesel to power the harvesting equipment etc. that is needed to grow the biomass, then harvest it and then transport it. All of this pollutes too. You are also competing with the food chain because land that could have been used to grow food to eat is instead used to grow biomass for a power plant. Also you could end up damaging a bunch of topsoil and the fertilizer and pesticides used isn’t environmentaly sound either. Converting to biomass could potentially quadruple the cost of electricty in the province of Ontario. This is a bad bad thing all around.

    Ontario already spend a ton of money building the Nanticoke power plant. It would be a waste of money and resources not to use it. North America has over a 200 year supply of coal reserves. And there is no consensus among scientists that our CO2 emissions are actually harming the earth.

    Also Canada hardly produces any Co2s compared to the United States which is one of the worst offenders. So why should Canada be that worried? If anything it’s the United States that should clean up first because it would make the biggest impact. Right now California only uses 1% coal power and most of it is natural gas and hydroelectric. So it’s not like my computer is polluting a whole lot since I happen to be in the Golden State right now.

    I say, Let Ontario keep their precious Nanticoke power plant. I’ve seen the sky photos of that plant and it’s beautiful. They use ship barges to move the coal instead of trains. They should capture the Co2 and pump it into the ground to use to pump out more crude oil or just for storage. The Co2s could also be captured and used for growing “algea” which can then be made into biodiesel or ethanol which is very clean and green for all our transportation needs.

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