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Ontario: Replacing Coal with Biomass

As part of an effort to phase out all coal plants in the Canadian province of Ontario by 2014, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) is working with power-plant owners to close facilities down or transition them to burn biomass.

One such facility, the 211-MW Atikokan Generating Station, will be the first to move entirely to biomass. This week, the government of Ontario directed the OPA to draft a power purchase agreement with the plant's owner, Ontario Power Generation.

Ontario Power Generation owns three other coal plants in the Province, and has said it wants to convert all three by 2014. According to Biomass Magazine, the coal plant will require about 99,000 tons of wood pellets year.

As part of its “Green Energy Act” passed last year, the Ontario government set an ambitious target to phase out coal plants in 5 years. Many people have criticized the target, saying that it's not realistic and will de-stabilize the grid.

However, according to figures from the OPA, generation from Ontario's coal plants is already down more than 70 percent from 2003 – the lowest level in 45 years. Publicly, officials from the OPA and Ontario government have said they think the phase-out target is realistic.

In Europe, the “re-powering” of coal facilities has been underway for some years. In the U.S., a number of other companies are also experimenting with using biomass in place of coal. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it would take about 1.6 billion tons of biomass to re-power all existing U.S. coal plants. The DOE reported that the U.S. could sustainably grow 1.3 billion tons of feedstock.

Of course, not every coal plant is going to convert to a biomass-burning facility. But theoretically, we have enough resources to transition a large portion of our coal fleet here in the U.S. The Wood Pellet Association of Canada has been trying to make a similar case.

The combination of robust feed-in tariffs for renewable energy and a mandate to close all coal plants will speed up the process in Ontario. If the Ontario government is successful in its effort, other states in the U.S. may look to the province as a model for shifting away from coal.

In 2009, the utility Georgia Power announced it was going to transition a 155-MW coal facility to burn biomass. The utility has since delayed the project due to uncertainty around Environmental Protection Agency regulations of boiler emissions (to see why this might hurt the industry, see this piece of commentary).

However, in the video below, the Georgia Farm Monitor gives us a preview of the transition.

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