PWU urges OPG to reconsider decision to close Thunder Bay plant

By Erin Voegele | October 17, 2018

The Canada-based Power Workers’ Union is speaking out against the recent decision by Ontario Power Generation to close its biomass-fired Thunder Bay Generation Station. The PWU called the decision “short-sighted” and called for more investment in the Thunder Bay region’s biomass innovation cluster.

The Thunder Bay Generating Station was first placed into service in 1963 and is the oldest of OPG’s thermal electricity-generation stations. The formerly coal-fired facility was converted to use advanced biomass in early 2015. 

According to OPG, significant corrosion damage was found to the boiler at the facility in late May 2018, making the plant non-operational. Due to high capital repair costs, high operational costs and limited time remaining on the Independent Electricity System Operator contract for the facility, OPG and IESO found that shutting down the station is in the best interest of electricity customers. Information released by OPG states that repairs to the station would take approximately six months, leaving only one year remaining for the IESO contract. In addition, OPG noted that due to lack of electrical demand, the Thunder Bay station is rarely used for electricity generation. OPG estimated, that based on historical annual average operational days, it expected that a repaired boiler would only be used for 2.5 days.

PWU, however, is arguing that closure of the facility will harm the region’s biomass industry. “It will ultimately lead to the disappearance of the region’s established biomass innovation cluster and most importantly the significant economic, environmental and social benefits it provides,” said PWU President Mel Hyatt.  “We believe it’s time to grow these benefits, not kill them.”

According to PWU, Ontario has invested approximately $200 million in the region’s biomass innovation cluster over the past decade, with most of that investment going to the biomass conversions of OPG’s Thunder Bay and Atikokan power stations. Millions of dollars were also invested in innovative biomass research at Confederation College, Lakehead University and the Center for Research and Innovation in the Bio-economy.

The PWU argues that although the Thunder Bay and Atikokan stations can provide reliable 24/7 base power and rapidly meet peak electricity demand, their capacity is underutilized, which reduces purchases of locally produced wood pellets.

“We support the northern stakeholders who believe a strong business case can be made for strategic investments in this cluster that will provide greater benefits to the region," said Hyatt.  “It starts with better power contracts for both stations.”

While OGP claims that closing the Thunder Bay station will save approximately $40 million annually, the PWU stresses that figure does not include the substantial costs for decommissioning the facility or the lost revenue from the ratepayer/taxpayer owned asset.

In the short-term, the PWU is calling for the IESO contracts for both stations to be expanded and include utilization of the waste heat. The Atikokan station’s contract currently expires in 2024. The PWU said waste heat generated at both facilities could be used in adjacent greenhouse complexes to supply local produce year-round, or to help make wood pellets or heat buildings.

“Take a look at Europe and Asia and the rapidly growing global marketplace for high-value biomass-based products and services," Hyatt said. “We have vast renewable, carbon-neutral biomass resources, we have the people and expertise to make this region a leader in world-class biomass innovation.”