How Ontario is getting off coal

Canada is often pilloried as a climate criminal these days, due in part to the environmental catastrophe unfolding at the Alberta tar sands mining operations, which are adding some of the most toxic forms of fossil fuel energy to the planet's atmosphere. The devastation from the operations is even visible from space.

But there is another side to Canada's energy story, a story about renewable power that shows how government, business and local communities can work together to boost jobs, grow the economy and slash carbon emissions. It's happening on the provincial level, and Ontario is a showcase for the effort.

Phasing out coal-fired power is a big slice of Ontario's plan to cut carbon emissions. The province has committed to closing all coal-fired power plants by 2014, making it the first jurisdiction in North America to make that pledge.

It's no mean effort. At an estimated cost of $4.4 billion (in U.S. dollars), getting off coal is shaping up to be "one of the largest single greenhouse gas reduction measures in North America," according to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and the effort is expected to reduce the province's carbon footprint from electricity by 75 percent. In 2011, coal supplied 13 percent of Ontario's installed generation capacity.

Although Canada has abundant wind resources, it already depends on hydroelectric power for 27 percent of its energy. The major challenge of renewables such as wind, solar and even hydro (during droughts) remains demand response, the ability to have the right amount of power whenever and wherever is needed.

Until the storage and transmission issues can be solved well enough to bring wind and solar to scale, cutting carbon emissions will depend on efficiency and on finding lower-carbon ways to generate power using existing infrastructure. Ontario's publicly owned power company, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), decided that biomass in the form of wood-waste pellets could supply a solution, providing "fully dispatchable" renewable energy by converting coal plants to the new fuel.

But could it be done sustainably?

Not all biomass is equal from a sustainability standpoint. Construction wood waste, for example, releases toxins into the atmosphere. Clearcutting forests and replacing them with industrial tree plantations endangers biodiversity. Stripping forests of all or most rotting material impoverishes the soil, preventing the healthy re-growth necessary to allow the forest to continue as a robust carbon sink.

OPG has pledged that all its biomass fuel sources must meet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change definition of renewable. Once the conversion is completed, it will use sawmill waste, logging residue, low-grade biomass and forest fire salvage wood.

The company began a coal-to-biomass conversion project at the Atikokan Generating Station in Northwestern Ontario. Before September 2012, the station produced approximately 200 MW of electricity, using low-sulphur lignite coal from western Canada. On Sept. 11, 2012, Atikokan stopped using coal as fuel, and the unit was shut down so the biomass conversion could get underway.

The Atikokan station was just one of several renewable energy projects I visited as part of a press tour hosted by the Ontario provincial government in September. In addition to the biomass plant, projects include software programs that wring the most efficient use of energy out of the power grid; and groundbreaking fuel cells, solar cells and LEDs. They illustrate how public support for private and public enterprises is steadily moving Ontario toward its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

When it is completed in 2014, at a cost of 170 million Canadian dollars, the Atikokan generating station will be the largest biomass-fired power plant in North America.

A lot is riding on the Atikokan biomass conversion project. The technological innovations it has put into practice alone put it on the map as a potential model for other such conversions -- that is, if they operate as expected. The federal and provincial governments see it as a "destiny project" for showcasing green business in Canada, and there is a lot of pressure to make it a success. It faces competition right now from natural gas, the price of which has plummeted.

But natural gas won't be cheap forever; some analysts see soaring natural gas prices within a decade, if not sooner. And if carbon ever gets a price approaching its real cost, sustainable biomass will beat it hands down.

Meanwhile, if the Atikokan biomass plant can fulfill its promise of providing renewable energy on demand at a reasonable cost, it could light the path for getting off coal, not just in Canada, but everywhere.

Biomass pellets image by tchara via Shutterstock.com.