Duncan Hawthorne, chief executive of nuclear operator Bruce Power, wants to build a new nuclear plant beside Nanticoke. It will create jobs and stimulate the economy, he argues. It will provide voltage support for the grid and more than replace the power lost when Nanticoke is mothballed (though we all know he wouldn't be able to build a new nuclear plant before 2014).
When Hawthorne proposed the new plant three weeks ago, Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman was quick to shoot him down. Smitherman has different plans for Nanticoke, and said in an interview last week he's "cautiously optimistic" it will work.
The idea: burn biomass instead of coal.
"It's an exciting option," says Smitherman, who in September directed the Ontario Power Authority to look at ways to add more renewables to the grid. He specifically asked the power authority to explore the potential of burning biomass in coal-fired plants. "I think it's going to be about 18 months before we have enough information to know what is possible."
Figuring out how to burn biomass such as wood or switchgrass pellets could solve many problems at once. The government could make good on its commitment to phase out coal. It could keep a sizeable amount of electricity generation in the area without having to build new transmission lines or plants, whether nuclear or natural gas.
It could continue to provide some much-needed voltage support for the grid, meaning less need to install expensive gear to compensate for the voltage losses.
It could keep local jobs and potentially create even more. That's because instead of importing coal, which is a flow of capital out of the province, OPG's need for biomass would stimulate a local industry for collecting wood or agricultural waste and turning it into fuel pellets. If an energy crop like switchgrass or poplar is chosen, it would also create opportunities for farmers that have seen markets for tobacco and ginseng disappear.
Most of all, it would lead to much cleaner power. Sulphur dioxide from biomass, particularly wood, only exists in trace amounts. There's no mercury. There are nitrogen oxides emissions, but far less than burning coal and some units at Nanticoke have selective catalytic reduction systems that can remove much of those emissions. Pollution-control equipment at Nanticoke that keeps soot and other particulates from entering the air can also be used for biomass.
That leaves greenhouse gases. When you burn wood or agricultural waste it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning coal. The difference is that the CO2 that enters the air is theoretically carbon-neutral – that is, it gets reabsorbed in new plant growth. I say theoretically because it assumes biomass harvested is plant life that's replaced.
But, I wonder how much biomass you would need to replace all that coal? And where would it come from?