The facts

When the conversion is complete, the Atikokan Station will be North America’s largest 100 per cent biomass-fuelled power plant, contributing 200 megawatts of electricity to the grid. “One of the advantages that biomass offers is that it’s dispatchable - meaning it’s ready to produce energy on demand, unlike wind and solar,” explains Chris Fralick, Regional Plant Manager, Northwest Operations at Ontario Power Generation.

Local Pride

For Fralick, who lives in the Northwest, the project has filled him with an enormous sense of personal pride. People from this part of Ontario understand the importance of protecting the land and the environment, so making such an important contribution to the future of renewable energy on his home patch is something that offers true satisfaction.

The conversion project has created over 300 jobs since it started, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  OPG has awarded contracts to two companies for the supply of 90,000 tonnes of biomass wood pellets per year to fuel the newly converted generating station: both Atikokan Renewable Fuels (Rentech) and Resolute Forest Products Canada will supply 45,000 tonnes each. The fact that both successful bidders for these contracts are companies based in northwestern Ontario has given the local economy another significant and well-timed boost.

A Community Commitment

The Atikokan conversion project owes much of it success to the strong partnership that has been forged between OPG and the local community. OPG never considered bringing in a workforce from outside to make this conversion happen, they were insistent on employing local people who truly care for and understand this part of the province.

“The conversion of Atikokan to biomass will play a big role in giving the region of northwestern Ontario a balanced portfolio of renewable energy,” Fralick says.  “Pretty much all of our power is going to come from renewable sources up here. Personally, to be part of this project is very exciting, it’s putting us on the map.”

There is a growing realization around the harmful effects of coal burning generating stations and it would’ve been easy for OPG to close the doors at Atikokan and start afresh somewhere else. But that would’ve had devastating consequences for the local community. True sustainability isn’t just about the environment; it’s about economies, communities and meaningful, mutually beneficial partnerships.

Fralick sees this type of project as a logical way of using existing assets to benefit local communities and the environment. “As we evolve into a more environment and energy-conscious society, having an option that reduces the capital cost of that sustainable transformation - and is beneficial to climate change mitigation - is pretty important,” says Fralick.

How it Works

Biomass is all biologically produced matter based in carbon, hydrogen and oxygen: an organic material that‘s derived directly from plants or other living organisms. Wood residue, usually in the form of pellets, is the largest sources of biomass energy on the planet, and humans have been using biomass energy since the era when we first started burning wood to make fire.

Imagine biomass as a natural battery for storing solar energy. Through a process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants captures energy from the sun by converting carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. When these carbohydrates are then burned, they release the solar energy that they originally captured. Using biomass is a return to nature, a return to the roots of our civilization; the only difference is that today we have the technology that allows us to utilize biomass to provide heat and power to thousands of homes. “Biomass is very similar in energy density and the way it’s handled to the coal that was used at Atikokan, and it also allows the extension of the infrastructure that’s already in place on the grid,” explains Steve Roberts, Managing Director of Rentech Canada.

The conversion project is tracking on budget and on schedule for completion in August 2014.

Joe Rosengarten