OPG initiates switch from coal to biomass at Atikokan generating station. Is it a good move for the climate?

The Ontario government directed the province’s power authority today to negotiate an agreement to purchase biomass power from Ontario Power Generation, a move that marks the beginning of a three-year coal-to-biomass conversion project at the Atikokan power station about 200 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. “Once converted, the plant is expected to generate 150 million kilowatt-hours of renewable power, enough to power 15,000 homes each year,” according to a government press release. “The annual fuel requirements for the plant, made up of dried wood pellets, are estimated to amount to less than one per cent of the total allowable forest harvest in Ontario each year.”

The Atikokan station was built 25 years ago and has a capacity of 230 megawatts. The plant has produced annually as much as 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. If it’s expected to generate 150 million kilowatt-hours when burning biomass — or one-tenth of peak annual output — it means the plant will be used primarily as a peaker and for other backup purposes.

I know there are concerns within the environmental community, also expressed by Ontario’s environmental commissioner, about the wisdom of using biomass for power generation. The fear is that the biomass that makes up the fuel wood pellets won’t be harvested sustainably, and there is also skepticism related to the “carbon neutrality” of biomass when used as a fuel. Also, particulate emissions are still a concern with burning biomass, so while it may serve a climate change strategy it won’t necessarily address local pollution problems. Obviously, these concerns need to be addressed so that all stakeholders are satisfied, but given the choice, I still believe that biomass is a better option than coal, particularly when it’s only used sparingly and for backup.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “OPG initiates switch from coal to biomass at Atikokan generating station. Is it a good move for the climate?”

  1. There’s no argument against biomass, only a large number of people aghast at doing anything with a tree.
    Regardless, nothing in the announcements is coherent news. The issue has been OPG’s ability to get a rate from a government hell-bent on the destruction of public power. The average output from the figures is 17MW by my math, which would quality it for a FIT price of 13 cents per kWh – if OPG were allowed to participate in that program.
    Because it’s only going to be back-up for hydro in a part of the province where the bigger issue has been oversupply due to shrinking demand, are we talking about how far above 13 cents the OPA will go?

  2. I have similar concerns for Bio-mass that I do for Bio-fuels- they are better than Coal and Oil, respectively, but not the best choices that address all of our ongoing concerns with polution, health, sustainability, climage change, etc. I don’t know- it is probably a good compromise to use these technologies to replace Coal and Oil- but it just seems like it would be so much more efficient to go straight to the better solutions. Ahhh, the inertia of government and society! By nature, I am very conservative, so do not endorse change lightly- but if you have to make changes, do it right and don’t do it halfway- it’s cheaper in the long-run! As I get older, I guess I am just getting more impatient;-)

  3. Biomass conversion could be a good way of switching away from coal, without imposing the kind of losses on utility companies that just forcing down the plants could produce.

    The biggest concern is whether the biomass to be burned is being generated in a carbon neutral way.

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