Ontario biomass conversion plans progress

By Anna Austin
Posted September 14, 2010, at 4:28 p.m. CST

The proposed conversion of an Ontario coal-fired power plant to biomass has achieved a critical next step in project implementation-the province has directed the Ontario Power Authority to begin negotiations to purchase power generated at the plant.

The 211-megawatt (MW) Atikokan Generation Station, which is about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario, will be the first power station that Ontario Power Generation will convert to biomass. The company owns three other coal-fired power plants in Canada, and has previously announced plans to evaluate repowering all of them with biomass by the end of 2014.

OPG Spokesman Ted Gruetzner said that although the order from the province to the OPA to buy the biomass power is one important pillar to the project, capital costs and availability of fuel are still being evaluated.

The Atikokan plant will require about 90,000 metric tons (99,000 tons) of wood pellets per year; less than 1 percent of the total allowable annual forest harvest in Ontario. OPG began a call for potential feedstock suppliers in mid-March. "We had some interest in that, but we're still working through that process in terms of coming out with the supply contracts," Gruetzner said.

OPG's proposed biomass conversions are in accordance with Ontario's commitment to eliminate all coal-fired power generation in the province by the end of 2014, as part of the province's Green Energy Act of 2009. The act also features North America's most comprehensive renewable energy feed-in tariff, which offers guaranteed and attractive prices to developers of biomass, biogas, wind, water and solar power projects. The rate for biomass is 13.8 cents per kilowatt for plants under 10 MW and 13 cents for larger facilities.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, in 2009, generation by Ontario's coal plants was at its lowest level in 45 years, down more than 70 percent from 2003.

Provincial Parliament Member Bill Mauro said the power purchase agreement marks the end of six years of efforts to keep the Atikokan generating station running, as closure of the plant would have been devastating to businesses and homeowners in Atikokan, a town of about 3,400 people. Aside from saving jobs at the plant, OPG estimates that about 200 construction jobs will be created during the conversion.

Gruetzner said there is no date set to begin the project, but since the plant must stop burning coal by 2014 it expects to begin work in 2012 or 2013.