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?