My Clean Break column today reveals some good news for air quality in Ontario, and points out that 2014 is shaping up to be an important milestone for the province — in more than one way. Of course, we all know that the plan in Ontario is to stop burning coal for electricity generation by 2014, and we’re well on our way to achieving that target. We’ll get there through a combination of measures: putting more renewables on the grid, shifting some generation to natural gas, importing more hydro from Quebec, and raising the bar on energy conservation. On that last note, we could see some major reductions from industry if a new program being run by the Ontario Power Authority delivers the goods. Under the Industrial Accelerator program, the province will pay an industrial energy users (the big ones, connected directly to the transmission system) up to 70 per cent of the cost of retrofits that achieve big energy efficiency gains, up to a cap of $10 million per project. So far the agency has received 40 applications to participate in the program, and 200 projects in total have been identified. The goal is to eliminate the equivalent of 300 megawatts of electricity demand (and generating capacity) from the grid by the end of 2014 and, in the process, make Ontario industry more competitive.
Now, this bodes well for air quality in Ontario, but keeping in mind that on average 55 per cent of air pollution comes into southern Ontario from the United States, we heard more good news earlier this month when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which goes into effect in 2014. That, in combination with other EPA initiatives, is expected to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 73 per cent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 54 per cent compared to 2005 levels. The rule, according to the EPA, “requires 27 states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that cross state lines and contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution in other states.” As EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said, “No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.”
Now, this wasn’t designed to protect Canadian provinces from smog-causing pollutants — it is meant to protect high-polluting states from less-polluting states — but the fact that Ontario is surrounded on its southern border by some of America’s biggest coal-using power plants, we can expect to benefit tremendously from this rule — assuming it doesn’t get derailed by legal challenges and continuing GOP insanity. I’m surprised, in fact, this didn’t get more coverage by mainstream Canadian media.
Saw a few stories today, based on an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail, suggesting the federal government has drawn the line when it comes to coal-fired power plants, or at least the kind of plants that don’t capture and permanently store their CO2. Canada’s federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice apparently met last week with the nation’s top power company executives and made the government’s intentions clear. According to the Globe, “Under Ottawa’s proposal, power companies would have to close their coal-fired facilities as they reach the end of their commercial life, largely over the next 10 to 15 years. The companies would not be allowed to refurbish the plants to extend their usefulness or replace them with new coal units, unless they include technology to capture the carbon dioxide and sequester it underground.”
Does this amount to a moratorium on dirty coal? It seems like it does, but the targets are pretty soft and you can bet this government will be so flexible with industry — particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan — that the effect of this moratorium won’t be felt for a least two decades. And that, unfortunately, is too late to matter. Just how the feds will define “end of useful life” or “refurbishment” can have a dramatic effect on the outcome. Coal plants don’t need major refurbishments. Like refineries, they are in constant repair and maintenance mode. Like an old car, as long as you keep repairing stuff when it breaks it can run forever, really. So you can expect existing coal plant owners, such as TransAlta, to drag this out for a long time. Even worse, TransAlta — the country’s worst polluter — is still building new coal plants, hoping to slide them in under the bell. This includes two projects totalling 500 megawatts that will be in service next year. Those plants could run for 40 or 50 years!
What we need is a meaningful price on carbon, and a hard moratorium that requires carbon capture retrofits by a certain date or a conversion of paid-for coal plants so that they can burn natural gas or biomass. Ontario has committed to phasing out coal power or converting to biomass/natural gas by 2014, but Alberta and Saskatchewan are heading in the opposite direction. Continue reading Has Ottawa put moratorium on conventional coal power?
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. Continue reading Is there enough residual biomass in Ontario to fuel a converted coal plant?