Is there enough residual biomass in Ontario to fuel a converted coal plant?

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.

17 thoughts on “Is there enough residual biomass in Ontario to fuel a converted coal plant?”

  1. Assume biomass has an average heating value of 20 MJ/kg. This is a usually high number, because we are talking about a higher quality wood (dried, etc).

    2.5 TWh * 3.6 PJ/TWh = 9 PJ

    9 PJ / 20 MJ/kg = 450,000,000 kg = 450,000 tonnes of biomass = 1232 tonnes of biomass / day

    That is a lot of trucks hauling biomass around!

  2. The goal – albeit not an easy one to work out – would be to move much of the biomass by water and rail. And let’s not forget that we currently move 10 million tonnes of coal from the U.S. to Nanticoke et al – and that the supply chains are likely shorter for biomass than coal.

  3. 2.5 terawatt-hours is a truly enormous number. And a lot of trucks as Darklamp says. But it has proven to be an important technology for Northern Europe and should be part of the mix for Canada.

    I believe there’s a plant in Florida that creates wood pellets on this scale. Anyone know what the world’s biggest biomass generation plant is?

    I remember when Britain went ahead with the big biomass plant in Wales — 350 megawatts (I think) — which is premised on importing wood chips from the US and Canada. Seemed so ludicrous at the time that we would be burning coal here and shipping the biomass to the U.K.

    Lots of promising indications coming out of Ontario these days.

  4. Darklamp has good points. Lots of water in biomass materials so the stack needs to deal with condensation issues or store the material and dry it on-site, both expensive. Direct burn of any organic material is still bad for the environment and this is why many companies have developed better methods than combustion (gasification, plasma arc..) Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner. By far the best method of converting organic material into energy is anaerobic digestion, are there not any immigrated Germans in this province in policy circles, at the OPA, or OPG or anywhere…

  5. These (above) comments highlight why conservation is still the most important means of achieving our goal of shutting down the coal-fired power plants and reducing pollution.

    Also, an alternative to simply burning the biomass would be to convert these old generating units into “pyrolysis” plants instead of combustion units — therefore ensuring a steady supply of Biochar for use in other applications like agriculture and land / water remediation — which would simultantously secure a means by which Ontario might be able to capture additional carbon ‘credits’ under carbon trading schemes. The IPCC is now looking at Biochar and will be discussing it during their next meeting and it should get approval under the Kyoto framework. A massive project like this could go a long way toward helping Canada – or at least Ontario – achieve it’s Kyoto commitments and becoming an even more responsible global citizen.

  6. I would worry about this much biomass being used, no matter what the source. Olive pits, crop residues and telephone poles are genuinely products that are wasted–currently–but switchgrass and tree branches and tops from forestry operations are not. Using either on an industrial scale represents a massive outflow of biological nutrients that will need to be replaced somehow, or leave a much poorer ecosystem. The fact that logging slash contains most of the tree’s nutrients is a saving grace of forestry operations, as leaving it in place allows the forest to maintain itself. The Germans have already been noticing the damage done to their country’s forests due to the recent trend for wood burning–it seems fuel companies have been ripping out and pelletizing entire trees, roots and all.

    Meanwhile, with dedicated cropland, it’s largely the need to constantly replenish soil nutrients that makes our agriculture so inefficient. Can switchgrass really be grown without any inputs?

    So indeed “the tricky part is ensuring that the fuel is produced sustainably”. I’ll keep an open mind, but I won’t believe it till I see the evidence.

  7. By the way… Why is there NEVER any talk, in Ontario, about co-generation? It changes almost totally the viability equation for fuels. I realize that, with this announcement, OPG is more intrested in efficient use of infrastucture than fuels. But still, I would hope that someone in the ministry of energy (?) is considering the long-term viability of district-level cogeneration using biofuels. I would hate to see Nanticoke swallow up all the available biofuels, making it impossible to pursue the more efficient long-term strategy.

  8. Wonderful point Eric Childs!

    If you are going to burn that much biomass, you might as well use it for heating and electricity purposes. My experience in Europe tells me that biomass is not the best fuel for electrical production. Most large biomass plants are used for heating cities and towns. This is much more efficient and also less energy intensive than creating superheated steam for turbine turning!

    I think Naticoke needs to have its heat captured and sent to a heat load instead of warming Lake Erie.

    Nanticoke: ~ 4000 MWe
    Average plant efficiency at making electricity: ~30%
    Waste heat loss (in the lake): ~70% or 9333 MWth
    Useful waste heat capture: ~50% or 6666 MWth

    A typical small house uses about 100 GJ of natural gas heat a year.

    6666 MWth * 8740 hours/year = 58,394,160 MWh of heat or 210 million GJ of heat.

    Or 2.1 million homes heated per year!

  9. I believe that this is a good idea so long as local waste wood is counted into the equation. Waste wood such as non-usable construction materials, telephone poles, railway ties, broken skids, residential organic wastes (Christmas trees, yard clippings, damaged trees, etc.), and a large scale of other materials that are local in nature and commonly end up in landfills could fill a large proportion of fuel for these processes. With the right ideas in place, a whole new sector of the economy could be created from items that are currently wasted without having to resort to forest wastes as a primary source of fuel. By utilizing common wood and organic wastes first, this concept could allow for a reduction in landfill waste and utilize resources that are currently considered trash. IF the plan that develops from this focuses on these wastes first BEFORE resorting to forest waste I believe that it could fill a great need in our society and allow for a truly green electrical system to develop in Ontario.

  10. Good point on the co-generation. If the technology exists and is being used in Europe and the united states why isn’t Ontario looking at it at the marriage of electrical and heat generation.

  11. I think the largest wood to electric plant in the world is at a pulp mull in Finland called “Alholmens Kraft”. It generates 550MW of heat – – tis makes 240MW of electricity, 100 MW steam for the mill and 60 MW steam for district heating.

    Cogeneration is certainly the way to go – – IF there is a local use for the steam/heat. Cogeneration is widely in the forestry industry but sadly, most coal-fired electric plants aren’t located right beside cities or other potential heat/steam users (if they are, definitely cogenerate!).

    re: nutrients, I *think* most of the nutrients are left in the leaves / needles and these drop to the forest floor / aren’t harvested, so this should help keep much of the nutrients in the forest.

    This is quite innovative thinking for Canada.

    Excellent thread!

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