These remarks are from the CI Ontario Power Conference on April 17, 2013, during a panel discussion about the Ring of Fire and Northern Development: Addressing the Challenges of Generation, Transmission and Project Development in Northern Ontario.
Dr. Peter Telford
One of the many challenges for renewable energy, whether it be wind, solar or biomass, and why, with current technologies and economies, renewables will rarely be able to fully replace base-load power supplied by fossil fuels or nuclear, are the inherent limitations – the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, biomass resources in their various forms are not always in abundant supply or in the right place.
In the past day and a half we have heard lots of references to wind and solar so I’ll focus these brief remarks on biomass which, of course, is the principal interest of my company. This is not intended to be a promo for Peat Resources Limited but I’m happy if the name catches your attention.
Biomass can be many things – wood waste from the forest products industry, dedicated agricultural crops, waste generated by other farming or food processing activity, or my personal favourite, peat, which has been used to produce electricity in Europe for many generations. While they have obvious environmental advantages, there are also limitations to these types of bioenergy resources competing economically with traditional fossil fuels – especially in this current time of very low natural gas prices.
For example, if your forestry industry is not healthy, there is less wood waste available. Dedicated agricultural crops require enormous areas of farmland to produce sufficient volume. Sustainable harvesting of forests (i.e. chopping down trees) for wood to turn into fuel pellets is expensive and requires vast areas. As studies done for OPG showed, to produce enough wood pellets to operate the Atikokan Generating Station at full capacity requires sustainable harvesting of all the current forest management areas of northern Ontario. (Available wood pellets within economic transportation distance of Atikokan can support only 8% generation capacity.) In regions such as Canada, and specifically northern Ontario, peat is abundant. In fact, Canada contains about 40% of the world’s peatlands. However, in order to satisfy environmental concerns and climatic factors, harvesting and processing costs can make it a premium fuel.
All of this is not to say that biomass does not have a place. Indeed it does, but I think we have to recognize that biomass energy, like wind and solar, requires special circumstances or niche markets in which to be successful. Ontario’s Liberal government provided an example of “special circumstances” which overrode economics when it legislated the end of coal-burning or power in the province. As a result, wood pellets did not have to compete head-to-head with cheap coal; wind and solar received subsidies.
And that brings these remarks to the principal topic of this panel – the energy needs and options of northern Ontario and specifically the Ring of Fire mining area – because the North and its mining developments and its remote communities provide clear examples of special circumstance and niche markets in which biomass energy can contribute successfully.
Much of the far North, and especially the northwest, is not well served by traditional infrastructure. Discussions about a transmission line from Manitoba are decades old. Increasing line voltage capacity from east to west in northern Ontario will not happen soon. It will be many years before the provincial grid is extended sufficiently to small communities of the far northwest. Yet, the Ring of Fire mining developments are happening now. These remote activities are projected to need more than 30MW of power within the next few years. Proponents face costly options for provision of this energy if they continue to look at traditional sources such as grid extensions or diesel fuel that must be trucked on winter roads or flown to the sites.
In the same region, remote, mainly First Nation communities must rely on diesel fuel – usually flown in at huge cost – for heat and power.
Yet, many of the remote mining developments and many of the remote communities are located close to abundant biomass resources – especially peat which, if harvested sustainably, could provide much cleaner and lower cost heat and power. For the First Nation communities this would also contribute the added benefits of jobs, training and self-sufficiency.
So, here we have an obvious situation of special circumstances and niche markets in which renewable energy resources – in this case peat and perhaps other biomass – can be developed and applied successfully without compromising any environmental or economic factors. We need people in the north, and people thinking about the north and its resource developments, to think beyond the standard options for energy supply. People trying to promote renewable energy should recognize this as a real opportunity that doesn’t require artificial incentives. The circumstances are the incentives.
Peat Resources Limited
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Ph 416 862 7885