Province of Ontario bans coal power plants, Al Gore cheers

Screen capture Kathleen Wynne and Al Gore

Al Gore came to Toronto to cheer on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, as she announced the closing of coal fired power plants in the Province as of the end of 2014. This is a big deal, a goal that the Province has been working toward for a decade. Electricity was a huge issue in the last provincial election; the Liberal government lost its majority thanks to NIMBYs who hate wind turbines, and is now in the middle of a big scandal, having expensively cancelled gas peaker plants that residents in Liberal ridings objected to.

Ontario is able to shut down the coal plants thanks to the gift of Niagara Falls, which provides a quarter of the province's power, plus the huge nuclear infrastructure that cost billions of dollars a few decades ago, and still pumps out over half of the electricity needed. Mix in the decline in demand thanks to a massive loss of manufacturing capacity, and the building of gas fired plants and a large number of wind turbines, and getting rid of coal becomes an achievable target.

fuel mixIESO/Public Domain

At least two of Ontario's more northern power plants are being converted to biomass. This has cheered the power workers union.

“Europe’s electricity sector has been benefitting from the use of carbon-neutral biomass, much of it imported from Canada, for decades, said Don MacKinnon, PWU President. “Ontario’s vast farm and forest sourced biomass—wood wastes, agricultural residues and purpose grown crops—provides our province with a unique energy advantage,” he added.

Except Europe's use of biomass is causing huge problems, as people begin to question whether it is in fact any better than coal, and whether it is promoting deforestation. The Ecologist calls it a Biomassacre:

Sustainability is a word that has become associated with biofuels and biomass. We believe that the biomass 'standards' planned by the UK Government are not worth the plantation-derived paper they are written on. They are based on flawed carbon accounting that ignores most carbon emissions and carbon debt and take no account of human rights abuses, land-grabs, food security, food sovereignty, biodiversity loss and adverse affects on soil, water and air quality.

biomessGreenpeace/Screen capture

It does seem counterintuitive that chopping trees and hauling them out of the forest, chipping them and turning them into pellets, and then burning them, releasing all their stored CO2 at once, is going to be environmentally friendly. Sure, the carbon will be re-absorbed as new trees grow, but that will take decades. In fact, according to Greenpeace:

  • Burning natural forest biomass – whether for electricity, heat or biofuels – is not carbon-neutral as governments and companies claim. Burning trees contributes to climate change for decades, as shown by the most up-to-date science, until replacement trees fully grow back.
  • Compared to current coal-fired electricity plants in North America, current woody biomass power plants can emit at the smokestack up to 150% more climate disrupting CO2, 400%more lung irritating carbon monoxide, and 200% more asthma causing particulate matter to produce the same amount of energy. The CO2 emitted will harm climate for decades before being captured by regrowing trees.
  • The latest science shows that burning biofuels derived from standing trees in southern Ontario’s forests will emit more CO2 emissions than using gasoline for well over a century.
  • Burning boreal biomass contributes to climate change through a long carbon payback time due to the slow regrowth of forests and the fragility of existing carbon stocks.
  • Federal and provincial governments fail to account properly the CO2 emissions from forest bioenergy production by using the simplistic assumption of carbon neutrality. In truth, CO2 emissions from biomass burning - about 40 megatons annually in Canada – are roughly the equivalent of Canada’s 2009 light-duty vehicles emissions.

thunder bay Thunder Bay power plant is being converted from coal to Bio-mass/Public Domain

Tyler Hamilton of Clean Break takes a more tempered view.

I know there are concerns within the environmental community, also expressed by Ontario’s environmental commissioner, about the wisdom of using biomass for power generation. The fear is that the biomass that makes up the fuel wood pellets won’t be harvested sustainably, and there is also skepticism related to the “carbon neutrality” of biomass when used as a fuel. Also, particulate emissions are still a concern with burning biomass, so while it may serve a climate change strategy it won’t necessarily address local pollution problems. Obviously, these concerns need to be addressed so that all stakeholders are satisfied, but given the choice, I still believe that biomass is a better option than coal, particularly when it’s only used sparingly and for backup.

Getting rid of coal is a great first step. The forestry sector in Ontario is in trouble and can use the work, as can the power workers in Thunder Bay. But lets not pretend that biomass is green.

Province of Ontario bans coal power plants, Al Gore cheers
But will the biomass replacing it at one power plant any better for the environment?

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