Replacing coal with biomass

By Paul Morden, The Observer

Sarnia-Lambton could have something to gain from Ontario’s decision to stop generating electricity from coal.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which operates the Lambton Generating Station and three other coal-powered plants in the province, is investigating a switch to alternatives, including biomass fuels made from wood and farm crops.

Phil Reinert, alternative fuels manager at the Nanticoke Generating Station on Lake Erie, will speak about electricity generation from biomass Thursday at Lambton College.

The move to biomass fuel is driven by Ontario’s decision to stop burning coal in OPG’s four generating stations by the end of 2014.

“So we need a different fuel if we’re going to keep those assets functioning for the benefit of Ontario, ” Reinert said.

That’s a particular concern for Sarnia-Lambton because of the hundreds of jobs and property taxes that will be lost if the generating station at Courtright closes.

Reinert said biomass is one alternative OPG is investigating, but much of the processing industry needed doesn’t exist yet.

“All that stuff needs to get built and it needs to get built in a relatively speedy timeframe,” he said.

“It’s possible and it can be done. There’s a lot of people working on it.”

Ontario recently put out a call for potential suppliers of wood-based biomass fuel for its Atikokan Generating Station, northwest of Thunder Bay.

Spokesperson Ted Gruetzner said OPG is examining the feasibility of converting Atikokan to biomass fuel first.

A decision on whether or not to proceed is expected to be made in the coming months.

OPG is also looking at switching to alternative fuels at its other stations, including Lambton, but there’s no time-line yet for when that might happen, Gruetzner said.

OPG’s Robert Lyng, speaking at a recent green energy conference in London, said the Lambton and Nanticoke plants could burn a combination of biomass and natural gas.

Burning biomass would reduce the plants’ carbon dioxide emissions by 90%, Lyng said.

Potential farm-grown biomass sources include switch grass and another grass called miscanthus, said Don McCabe, a Lambton County farmer and Ontario Federation of Agriculture vice-president.

He also believes there’s biomass potential in corncobs.

McCabe said OPG’s call for proposals at Atikokan is encouraging for those who believe in the potential of biomass fuels. “It certainly is a signal they’re wanting to do this kind of work and see where the world can head,” he said.

“The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is actively pursuing research opportunities to make sure we’ve got the questions answered for farm operators to be active participants in a biomass supply chain.”

Reinert said he will speak Thursday about the challenges OPG faces generating electricity from biomass, including the fact that most of the supply chain doesn’t exist yet.

Another challenge is that farm crops need to be processed first because they can contain substances OPG’s plants don’t need or want.

“They actually cause us problems in combustion, so we would like nothing better than to have someone take them out before we get them.”

That could create opportunities for a community with the processing expertise and background Sarnia has.

Refineries are “in the business of extracting chemicals and using them for beneficial purposes,” Reinert said.

They may be able to do that with farm crops OPG is interested in using as biomass fuel, creating a “symbiotic relationship,” Reinert said.

The University of Western Ontario Research Park in Sarnia has already carried out a number of studies on biomass fuels for OPG, Reinert said.

Observer Article ID#2507108

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