Biomass inventory, supply-chain logistics, standards and technological applications, emerging markets, technical and regulatory hurdles were highlights of two bio-economy workshops held recently in Thunder Bay.

Hosted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), the take-home messages were positive and promising.

The province has organic material from forest wood and agriculture residues that complements with forestry-based expertise to be at the forefront of an old-but-new alternative form of energy. Thus, generating electricity and heat through renewable biomass products has tremendous potential.

Biomass is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy with a low carbon footprint. Plants absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. When biomass is burned, this stored energy is released as heat, and the CO2 is returned to the atmosphere. This maintains a closed carbon cycle with no net increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.

However, life cycle CO2 emissions still occur, depending upon production techniques, transport distances and boundary conditions for analysis. For example, CO2 emissions from wood chips is 2 Kg/Gigajoules (GJ) compared to 115 Kg/GJ from coal.

Other potential opportunities and advantages of biomass utilization cited are low air quality impact, reduced municipal waste, and enhanced economic development, especially for remote and rural areas.

Biomass resources can be very diverse, ranging from wood, bark, agricultural residues, grasses, forages, animal waste, and byproducts of some industries. Despite the diversity, the composition of most biomass materials is relatively uniform in terms of heating value, especially after the moisture is removed, but handling is quite different.

Biomass-based fuels have lower energy density than fossil fuels, which means that more fuel is required to get the same amount of energy. This poses a barrier for its widespread use. When low energy content is combined with low bulk density, the volume of biomass handled increases enormously.

According to Dr. Mathew Leitch, Lakehead University’s wood expert, ash content is another important determinant of heating value and can vary from 1 per cent to as much as 10 per cent depending on fuel quality and boiler performance.

Ontario’s biomass-to-electricity is estimated to be about 1.3 per cent of the total provincial electricity with the projected demand of 2.6 terawatt hours (TWh)/year by 2030. Ontario has the potential to sustainably produce 15.69 megatons of dry biomass per year, with 65 per cent from forest, 18 per cent from animal waste, and 17 per cent from crop residues. Research data suggests that there is enough fibre to fuel a major expansion in pellet production to feed Ontario’s former coal-fired plants without much of an impact in overall fibre availability.

Atikokan Generating Station, a unique addition in the province’s clean energy portfolio, is now a 100-per-cent wood pellet-biomass fueled plant.

The emerging trend of converting coal plants to burn biomass can be done at lower capital costs than building new options. Both the conventional white pellets made of saw dust and advanced pellets that are not affected by precipitation are options but are dependent largely on the capacity utilization of the converted plant.

Small conversions using advanced biomass like OPG in Thunder Bay require capital expenses around $33/kW, and full scale conversions like in Atikokan can be around $770/kW compared to building a natural gas plant at $1,200/kW.

Also, the weighted wholesale price of electricity — the Hourly Ontario Energy Price (HOEP) is at 2.36 cents/kWh and by some estimates biomass may cost about $85/MWh (depending on the scale of the industry). The economics still pose challenges but could become feasible with greenhouse gas credits or a price on carbon emissions.

Biomass is yet to find a major place in Ontario’s electricity mix. The sector is being built on innovation and emerging markets. In Thunder Bay, the $6 million Bio-Energy Learning and Research Centre at Confederation College and Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE) are initiatives to pioneer research, technology and infrastructure advancements towards a new era of knowledge-based biomass power generation.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has commissioned Pembina Institute to analyze the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of electricity generation from forest-based biomass for 2015-2115, an initiative to support climate change benefits.

Research and projects are underway by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, University of Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association to study the potential of harvesting energy crops and developing domestic markets for a robust bioeconomy-based industry. However, emerging opportunities for Ontario farmers to harvest agricultural biomass comes with its share of concerns — fertilizers, agricultural machinery, transportation, and processing can increase the carbon footprint in the supply-chain.

Further, crop residues are vital for protecting topsoil from erosion. Land and water needed to grow biomass on a commercial scale puts additional stress. Yet, a Pembina Institute Biomass Sustainability Analysis report suggests that the overall environmental impact in the life cycle analysis is substantially less than fossil fuels.

Improved policy tools could play a big part in the growth of biomass-to-electricity. Careful attention is needed to confront problems of reforestation, land use, water use, soil quality, erosion and pollution. Increasing incentives is one approach to raise biomass usage.

A report by Queen’s University estimated that Ontario’s Feed-in-Tariff rates for wood-to-electricity would have to rise to $0.273/kWh, in order to provide a 20-year internal rate of return of 27 per cent and a three-year payback period. The potential long-term payoffs of such investments need better understanding.

Retaining benefits and creating jobs locally (as opposed to exporting dollars to energy companies) and independence (especially for remote sites) are important benefits to biomass. Colin Kelly, director of applied research at Confederation College, stresses that initial investment in biomass energy often leads to subsequent investment and more local jobs in the future, as other jurisdictions have shown. Most importantly, consumer confidence in the technologies, along with resource availability and affordability, will be key factors for transition.

Canadian wood pellet marketing and logistics will be covered in my next installment.