Generating stations in both Atikokan and Thunder Bay are waving the environmental flag for being leaders in sustaining healthy forests while using its byproducts to produce renewable bioenergy.

Wednesday was National Bioenergy Day across North America and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) opened the doors to its Thunder Bay plant for tours. The plant switched to biomass pellets this past January, ending the burning of coal. The coal storage area of the property was levelled and seeded with grass and rests beside mountains of biomass pellets.

Mike Martelli, senior vice-president of hydro thermal operations at the Thunder Bay plant, says the switch to pellets saved more than 55 jobs at the plant and has spinoff economic benefits throught the operation’s suppliers.

There are two forms of biomass, explained Martelli. The Atikokan plant burns simple biomass and Thunder Bay burns advanced biomass.

“The simple or white biomass is simply raw wood that is compressed into pellets. It’s the stuff that many people burn in their wood stoves,” said Martelli. “The problem with simple biomass, from a power generating perspective, is you have to keep it dry. So you have to build an infrastructure of silos and transfer towers to keep the biomass dry. If it gets wet, it’s ruined.”

Martelli explained that advanced biomass technology has been developed to help the pellets survive moisture.

“They’ve tacked on a steam process to the back end of the equipment that makes the simple biomass wood change in chemical composition, making the pellets resistant to water,” he said.

The advanced biomass can be stored outside without worry of harm from rain and snow.

Making the Atikokan plant compatible with the simple biomass came at a cost. Thunder Bay’s retrofit cost only $6 million but the inclusion of dry storage facilities at the Atikokan facility helped drive the conversion cost there up to $170 million.

The payoff for the Atikokan operation is that it can use fuel made from Northwestern Ontario wood. Resolute Forest Products and Rentech Inc. supply simple biomass pellets for the plant.

Thunder Bay’s pellets are shipped in from Norwegian company Abraflame, who was chosen after its advanced biomass passed vigorous tests set out by OPG. Norway and Texas are the only suppliers of advanced biomass in the world.

Martelli says they are hopeful that some entrepreneurs will pick up on this and start fabricating the product in Ontario to provice a home-grown fuel supply.

Martelli explained that the burning of biomass is very common in Europe, however many plants are burning a mix of coal and biomass or biomass and natural gas.

“This is where we’re unique because we are burning 100 per cent biomass,” said Martelli. “The future is in advanced biomass.”

Despite the costs of the conversion and wood pellets, the environmental advantages of biomass over coal are clear.

“We are 99.7 per cent free of carbon emissions and smog-causing emissions,” said Martelli. “By converting these plants in Atikokan and Thunder Bay to burn biomass, it’s helped us achieve that 99.7 percent (environmental) footprint which is excellent for a power company.”

Coun. Iain Angus, representing Thunder Bay city council, was on hand for the open house and highlighted the importance of energy capacity in attracting investment.

“There is a consortium examining building a very large solar manufacturing facility in the Thunder Bay area and my understanding is they have been working away at identifying the appropriate location,” he said. “Hopefully we will see that they are going ahead with the project and announce that within the next month or so.”

Angus says the new solar manufacturing plant would require 200 megawatts of power on its startup and an additional 100 megawatts within its first year.

“That would take the entire capacity of the Thunder Bay generating station,” he said.

Angus says according to the ‘last testament’ that the solar panel company gave, the plant would employ 5,000 operating jobs and create 10,000 construction jobs.

“If this plant happens, it will be a game changer in all sorts of ways, for the electricity system, but also in terms of the economy of Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario,” he said.