Peat: solution for power-plant mercury pollution (June 25, 2006) – Stan Sudol

This column was originally published in the June 25, 2006 issue of Northern Life.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues. stan.sudol@republicofmining.com

Due to pollution concerns, the recent announcement to keep coal-power plants open was not easy for the provincial Liberals, but Ontario is facing power shortages. They had no choice. It was a tough but pragmatic and responsible decision.

The government still plans to replace coal-fired generation as soon as possible without compromising electricity production. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks is mercury contamination.

Before the GTA’s Lakeview plant closed last year, Ontario’s five coal-fired stations produced about 527 kilograms of mercury which was almost one-third of all mercury emissions in the province.

The McGuinty government has been severely criticized for backing out of its commitment to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment to reduce toxic mercury discharges by 50 percent – now an unattainable goal. However, there is a solution for mercury pollution. Peat fuel – a biomass energy source-is abundant in Northern Ontario.

Peat bio-fuel has virtually no mercury and has significantly less sulphur emissions than coal. It also produces less ash waste and dust. Canada has the biggest deposits in the world while some of the largest accessible sites are located in northwestern Ontario. And peat fuel can be blended with, or substituted for, coal with minimal conversion costs.

In the early 1980s, the Ontario Geological Survey studied about 88,000 kilometres of northwestern Ontario peatlands. By just focusing on the best peatlands with no land-use conflicts, they estimated that this fuel-grade peat resource had the energy equivalent of 330 million barrels of oil. Finland, Ireland, Russia and other Eastern European countries use peat bio-fuel in their energy supply mix. In many facilities in Finland, peat fuel is co-fired with coal and wood waste to reduce mercury and sulphur emissions.

Ontario Hydro Research concluded, “an upgraded fuel peat can be effectively co-fired with propane or coal without any serious adverse affects.”

Replacing 10 to 25 percent of coal presently used in Ontario’s coal-fired power plants with peat bio-fuel would help reduce mercury and sulphur emissions as well as providing much needed employment throughout Northern Ontario.

In April 2006, the Ministry of Energy released a pre-feasibility report that examined various bio-mass alternatives for northwestern Ontario’s Atikokan coal-fired station. The study was carried out by Forest Bioproducts Inc., a Sault Ste. Marie-based consultancy with international expertise in the field of biomass energy. The potential bio-fuels included peat, wood waste, forest harvest residues and Toronto garbage.

These alternatives were reviewed from the perspectives of environmental and social impact, availability, cost and conversion requirements.

Using various wood or wood-waste products would reduce the rating capacity of the generating station to about 150 MW due to the lower energy output of wood-based products and $100 million would have to be spent for boiler upgrades. Availability of supply, competition for other value-added uses and costs for transportation also helped rule out wood fibre.

Extensive modifications, in the $200 million range, and reduced rating capacity also made the Toronto waste option too expensive.

The report concluded that Peat Resources Limited’s proposal to supply the Atikokan facility with peat fuel at 20 percent to 25 percent moisture content, from the company’s properties centered on the town of Upsala would be the best option.

Using peat bio-fuel would allow the Atikokan plant to operate at its current rating of 215 MW and would only require a nominal $5 million in capital costs to modify the facility for peat use. The data shows that there is sufficient fuel-grade peat in the region to meet the entire demand of the station for more than 50 years. And, as noted above, analytical work carried out on the Upsala peat confirmed that this fuel has zero mercury content.

The full report is on the following Ministry of Energy website: http://www.energy.gov.on.ca/english/pdf/electricity/Atikokan_report_2006.pdf

Mark Jaccard is a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Energy and Materials Research Group. He is a recent winner of the 2006 Donner Prize for the top Canadian book in public policy titled “Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Usual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy.”

In an email interview from Vancouver, Jaccard says, “The key issue is economics.  It is looking like we can get energy from coal without greenhouse gas emissions and without mercury emissions.  Peat could also be a viable alternative.” 

Peat Resources estimates about 200 direct jobs would be established with the main project to supply Atikokan with peat fuel.

The Lac Des Milles Lacs First Nation Reserve 22A1 is adjacent to one of the peat development areas near Upsala. 

The band welcomes the economic development of this project as long as it meets the elders’ requirements for environmental protection.

Peat Resources has responded to this, and to provincial environmental regulations, and has already completed biological and hydrological surveys as part of an Environmental Assessment. The first public consultation meeting is scheduled in Upsala for June 28, 2006 where information on many successful reclamation projects of sustainably harvested peatlands in Europe will be highlighted.

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