100% coal-to-biomass conversion reduces GHGs by 92 per cent: study

Ontario is making solid progress with its plan to convert some of its coal-fired power plants to biomass. And not just co-firing, like what many U.S. jurisdictions are considering, but full out 100 per cent biomass burn. It will prove a key part of Ontario’s greenhouse-gas reduction strategy. A new University of Toronto study has concluded that converting coal-fired units at the Nanticoke and Atikokan plants to burning wood pellets would reduce GHGs by roughly 92 per cent, and this is based on a full lifecycle analysis. On top of that, it would create a local biomass supply chain — for harvesting, pelletization, transportation, etc. — and local jobs that simply don’t exist under a coal-only regime. OPG also plans to operate the plants as peakers, meaning they could be used to help manage renewables (i.e. there would be less natural gas required to perform this balancing act).

I have an update on Ontario Power Generation’s biomass strategy in today’s Clean Break column. OPG will likely convert Atikokan to 100 per cent biomass by 2012, with some units at Nanticoke likely to follow a year later. Lambton and Thunder Bay plants are also being considered. The OPG executive heading up the transition, Chris Young, says the company is seriously investigating a fuel pellet mixture with both wood and agricultural residues (or dedicated crops, like switchgrass). OPG figures that coal plants converted to burning biomass will likely operate for another 10 years before decommissioning, at which point the pellet supply chain will be firmly established and the move to build a distributed fleet of newer biomass-burning plants can begin.

And what is U of T’s estimated cost of supplying electricity from an existing coal plant converted to burning 100 per cent biomass? Roughly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, which excludes the impact of carbon prices. Given that natural gas won’t stay low forever and will eventually be subject to carbon pricing, this makes the biomass option competitive (also with wind and nuclear) and at the same time is a winner when it comes to local green-collar job creation.

If OPG can pull this off, it would be another Ontario first — and something other jurisdictions can learn from.

5 thoughts on “100% coal-to-biomass conversion reduces GHGs by 92 per cent: study”

  1. While biomass is viewed as GHG neutral over it’s lifecycle, doesn’t the large-scale burning of wood accelerate the release of GHGs from decades (depending on the plant species – some trees take hundreds of years to fully decompose) to a very short time period? Is that taken into consideration in the design and operation of biomass programs? This also relates to the carbon-friendliness of the use of wood-fired stoves and furnaces for homes.

  2. By the way, I recently discovered your blog and am very impressed with your coverage and editorial.

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the benefits of going 100% biomass vs. co-firing (i.e. can recover and use ash), as this is something you and David Benson have been harping on (correctly IMO) for quite so time no?

  4. I tried to follow the link to the University of Toronto study, but every browser I tried came back with a message from pubs.acs.org saying that I did not have cookies enabled, and they are required.

    Looking closer at the URL in your article, it has “?cookieSet=1” at the end. I tried trimming that part off, and I was able to access the article. Here’s the shortened URL that works for me:

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es902555a

    You might want to update the article to change this so readers can follow the link. Great find, by the way. This idea occurred to me in the past, and seemed worth pursuing if only to take advantage of existing investment in complete working power plants and transmission grid connections. I just didn’t think I could get OPG’s attention for my little thought. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in wondering about this. Terrific to see Ontario making such innovative moves. Let’s hope these ideas pan out well here, and get noticed around North America and the world as ready-to-go alternatives to coal.

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