This column was originally published in the March 26, 2006 issue of Northern Life.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues. [email protected]
The Ontario government is committed to closing the province’s four coal-fired generating plants by 2009 due to pollution concerns. This will eliminate 6,500 megawatts of power generating capacity, about 20 percent of production. These four power stations cost billions of tax dollars to build, and with regular maintenance, could continue running for decades. As a consequence, Ontario taxpayers will have to needlessly spend billions more to construct new gas-fired generating plants – powered with a very expensive source of energy that is in short supply.
We are entering uncertain times in a new globalized economy where reasonably priced energy is a key factor for investment decisions. Ontario’s manufacturing might is being put at risk with policies that don’t accommodate sensible and sustainable development of local energy sources.
Concerns about high sulphur and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants are being cost effectively addressed around the world. Many jurisdictions significantly reduce these pollutants by co-firing coal with a variety of locally-derived biomass fuels.
Biomass energy can be produced from plant or animal material. Peat, wood, forestry and agricultural waste material are being used to generate electricity and heat, by themselves or co-fired in existing coal power plants. Other forms of biomass energy include fuels like ethanol derived from corn or soybeans and methanol made from wood. Industrial, human and animal wastes can also be used to produce biomass energy.
The benefit of using biofuels is that the carbon released during combustion was only recently taken from the atmosphere so burning it does not result in a net increase of carbon dioxide as opposed to fossil fuel carbon – coal, oil and natural gas – that was removed millions of years ago.
Biofuels are renewable while fossil fuels are not. Using biofuels does not contribute to global warming and helps meet Kyoto protocol targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
The federal government’s Clean Energy Canada website classifies peat as a solid biofuel. The European Parliament added peat to its list of renewable resources in 2000.
Virtually no mercury in peat biomass
Brownish-black in colour, peat is a material formed from the partial decomposition of plants under very wet, acidic conditions. It is usually made up of two separate layers, the top being lighter in colour, less decomposed and is used primarily for horticultural applications while the dark, dense lower layers are excellent for fuel.
Peat fuel is much cleaner than coal and cheaper than oil and gas. With inexpensive modifications to Ontario’s existing coal-fired power plants, peat fuel can be used by itself in an upgraded form, or in combination with coal.
Peat fuel has only 10 percent of the sulphur content of coal, virtually no mercury and produces less ash waste and dust emissions. Before the GTA’s Lakeview plant closed last year, Ontario’s five coal-fired stations emitted about 527 kilograms of mercury which was almost one third of all mercury emissions in the province. Ontario Hydro Research concluded that “an upgraded fuel peat can be effectively co-fired with propane or coal without any serious adverse affects.”
Ontario-based Peat Resources Limited is working to develop some of Northern Ontario’s extensive peat deposits centered near the town of Upsala, approximately 100 kilometres from the two coal-fired power plants in Atikokan and Thunder Bay. The underutilized port facilities at Thunder Bay could economically ship peat fuel to coal-fired power plants on both sides of the border throughout the Great Lakes.
Many northwestern Ontario peat bogs in their natural states generate methane gas. This greenhouse gas is 23 times more detrimental to the environment than CO2.
Finland world leader in peat bio-energy use
Finland is the leading user of bioenergy in the industrialized world. With a population of 5.2 million, the country has a highly-industrialized, knowledge-based economy and a standard of living comparable to Ontario.
The only indigenous energy sources in Finland are hydro power, and vast forests and wetland areas growing wood and peat. The country has no fossil fuel resources like coal, natural gas or oil – similar to Ontario, notwithstanding our insignificant oil production around Sarnia.
Another similarity is peat fuel. Northern Ontario’s vast bogs, which contain the largest accessible deposits of peat fuel in the world, have the energy equivalent of 72 billion barrels of oil according to a provincial government report. However, the big difference between these two jurisdictions is that Finland uses economically priced peat fuel for heat and power and Ontario does not.
Ironically, Finland, the largest global user of peat fuel for electricity and heat, only contains about 10 million hectares of peatlands compared to the 31 million hectares in Ontario. Ireland, another major user of peat fuel, has even less peatlands – 1.2 million hectares. Ireland, known as Europe’s booming celtic tiger, opened two new peat-fired power plants in 2005 at a cost of $572 million (US).
Finland, which has the coldest climate in Europe, produces about 1,350 MWe of electricity and 30,000 MWth of thermal heat from peat fuel co-fired with wood products and other bio-fuels. Vapo Oy, based in city of Jyvaskyla, is the largest supplier of peat fuel in the world.
Co-firing peat-fuel with coal and wood waste is very common in Finland. A 120 MWe power plant in Seinajoki, built in 1990, uses both peat and coal. The Alholmens 240 MW unit in Pietarsaai, can use 100 per cent biomass – peat and wood, 100 per cent coal or any mix thereof.
Fears about high power costs and security of supply during the oil price hikes of the early 1970s encouraged Finland to develop its own abundant peat fuel deposits. Peat fuel supplies about seven percent of the country’s power production and 19 percent of district heating requirements. Peat-fired plants are used for district heating in over 200 municipalities, with most of these being dual fuel systems utilizing local forestry products such as wood chips and mill residues.
Like northwestern Ontario, the forest and paper industry represents a significant amount of Finland’s industrial production. This sector is very energy intensive accounting for 63 percent of industrial energy consumption in Finland. The use of economically priced peat fuel allows the sector to remain internationally competitive.
There was tremendous environmental opposition when Finland started its national peat development programs. It was gradually overcome when the general public realized that only about one percent of the country’s total peatlands – about 60,000 hectares – were needed for their energy requirements. In addition, extensive tracks of pristine mires have been protected and comprehensive restoration programs are mandated for harvested peatlands.
Most of Finland’s peat production is in remote areas where there is a lack of jobs, offering rural economic development opportunities and stemming youth out-migration, a major concern in northern Ontario.
Since the early 1980s, the country has invested heavily in bio-energy and biomass combustion R&D – considered the world leader in this technology – and has developed a wide range of efficient and environmentally sensitive methods for harvesting and utilizing peat while minimizing the ecological impact of the industry.
The recent provincial government announcement to create a $4 million Bio-Energy Research Centre in Atikokan to conduct practical research for the province, the community and the Atikokan Generating Station is a promising start. Hopefully a significant part of that research will focus on peat fuel and peatland restoration.
This should allow the province to keep its coal-fired power plants intact and inexpensively convert them to burn upgraded peat fuel by itself or co-fired with coal to reduce pollution and secure the supply of desperately needed power.
The Ontario Government is in a panic about energy issues. We are rushing the decision to build a new generation of nuclear power plants that will cost future taxpayers billions of dollars. By using our extensive peat-fuel deposits we will provide economic development in northern Ontario and allow much needed time to decide the direction of this province’s energy future.