Ontario Power Generation, the province’s power utility, issued today a “call for expressions of interest” to potential suppliers of biomass fuel, which could include agricultural residues, dedicated non-food crops, and forest waste. Read the story here. The company said it wants to find out if there’s enough biomass in the province for it to convert several of its coal-fired generating units in Ontario so they can burn 100 per cent biomass instead of coal. They also want to get a sense of how it would be collected and delivered and how much all that would cost. To assist the effort, the Ministry of Natural Resources put out its own call for interest to see what companies would be interested in harvesting biofibre — tree branches and tops, diseased and fire-damaged trees, etc. — from sustainably managed crown forests.
I wrote about the government’s coal-to-biomass power generation strategy last fall and it appears to be gaining some momentum. It’s an ambitious project. Not just from a technical perspective, in terms of the actual plant conversion, but perhaps even more so from a logistical perspective. We’re talking huge volumes of biomass — whether in the form of wood or switchgrass or some other pelletized biosolid. It requires development of a reliable supply chain. If it can be done, the reduction in air pollution and CO2 emissions is just one benefit. Displacing imported coal with local biomass would give birth to an industry, local jobs, and leverage existing generation and transmission assets in the province. “The tricky part is ensuring that the fuel is produced sustainably,” says Keith Stewart of WWF-Canada, who supports the idea of turning several units at the Nanticoke generating station into biomass burners. “If we produce 2.5 to 3 terawatt-hours of electricity from biomass at Nanticoke it would allow Nanticoke to play the stabilizing role for the grid it does now while creating an infrastructure for a biomass sector.” Local greenhouse operations in the area, by leveraging that infrastructure, would also have a steady supply of biomass that could replace the burning of bunker oil or natural gas.
For perspective, 2.5 terawatt-hours is about 10 per cent of the electricity that was generated last year in Ontario by OPG’s four existing coal plants — enough to supply 200,000 homes with electricity for a year. Generating this much electricity with biomass is an immensely ambitious effort, but if OPG can pull it off, it would set a fine example for other jurisdictions looking to reduce their dependence on coal power as talk of cap-and-trade heats up under an Obama administration.