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Bioenergy shines in Thunder Bay


It’s a big week for bioenergy in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Not only did the community officially open the Ontario Power Generation BioEnergy Learning and Research Centre at Confederation College on Sept. 8, but on Sept. 10 a grand opening will be held for Atikokan Generating Station, previously a coal-burning power station that has been converted to wood pellets, both events occuring simultaneous to the Canadian Bioenergy Conference.

The conference kicked off Monday by bringing a bus of tour goers to the center, which consists of two 500-kilowatt (kW) Froling thermal boilers that heat the college, a 150-kW biomass boiler dedicated to research purposes, emissions testing capabilities, access to the boilers’ data management system and lab testing space, among other components.

“We want to train new bioenergy technicians and engineers, and that is what this facility is for,” said OPG Director of Biomass Business Development and tour host Brent Boyko.

During the tour, Colin Kelly, director of applied research, explained why the college opted for biomass. The 4,000-square-foot main building originally used electric heat, which was at one time a cheap option, but that changed as time passed, Kelly said. “We looked at various possibilities to retrofit, and an obvious was natural gas, but the college has emissions goals, so there was a lot more to the decision than just saving dollars. Biomass fit the bill.”

The facility uses about 1,000 dry tons of biomass fuel in a heating season, and all of it is purchased locally, Kelly emphasized. “It’s a small system, but it has big economic impacts. We think these can be replicated in other communities.”

Specially the small, off-the-grid communities that are common in the region and don’t have immediate access to heating fuels such as natural gas. “There’s a big movement here right now to look at biomass, and to draw energy from close by,” Kelly said.

Manager of Applied Research Brian Kurikka provided details about development—which began in 2008—and operation of the facility, which includes $300,000 worth of continuous emissions monitoring equipment. Part of the expenditure is the hefty price tag required to obtain an environmental compliance permit, but Kurikka said some extra was spent for research purposes.

The boilers can handle chips containing up to 50 percent moisture, but fuel used at the facility averages around 25 percent. About three days’ worth of fuel can be stored on site, according to Kurikka. “That’s why it’s important to have a dedicated supplier who delivers consistent fuel on a consistent operation,” he said.

During an ensuing ribbon-cutting ceremony that was attended by project partners, supporters and community members, Chris Fralick, regional plant manager for OPG’s northwest operations spoke briefly about the vast benefits the center will offer the region’s bioenergy industry and future workforce. “It’s a grand day for OPG and the college,” he said. “Confederation College takes a big step into the future, and OPG is doing it simultaneously…not only will students from the college have opportunities to learn how to advance bioenergy, but companies can test products and research and move forward with powering the future.”

Fralick said AGS is now the largest 100 percent biomass fuelled power plant in North America. “We’re very excited about that…and this magnificent facility will be a great learning institute. These bioenergy learning opportunities aren’t available anywhere else in the region. “

He added that OPG has recruited many employees from Confederation College over the years.

Confederation College President Jim Madder touched on the challenges involved in bringing plans for the center to life, particularly achieving necessary approvals, and reiterated that current requirements need modifications. “We’re here to change policy,” he said. “It’s been extremely difficult to get this [project] approved, but if we’re looking into the future wanting this to work for smaller communities and larger buildings throughout the province, we need to make a system more effective to everyone. MOE (Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change) and the provincial government has committed to this. People have really worked hard to make this thing work…our team is working to modernize guidelines at MOE.”

Madder added that bringing the system on line will save the college around $200,000 annually.

Following Confederation College, the tour stopped for a presentation on biomass use at Resolute Forest Products, and a drive by tour of Thunder Bay Generating Station, where OPG is currently testing advanced biofuel pellets. Once the minimal infrastructure modifications are complete and a fuel supply secured–the company will be putting out another request for proposal in the very near future—the plant will be a used as a peaking facility during planned or unexpected outages. Numerous test runs using fuel acquired from a previous RFP has indicated advanced biomass—different than torrefied pellets–has provided the best results, according to a plant manager.

The Canadian Bioenergy Conference continues with a day-long tour of the Atikokan Generating Station on Sept. 8.

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