Ontario Electricity System Operational Update Part #3: Forest Burner Fuels Up

OPG has moved a step closer to getting its super expensive, Pembina Instititute-approved, forest-fuelled power station at Atikokan into operation.

OPG has entered into contracts to buy 90,000 tonnes per year of wood pellets for 10 years to fuel its converted Atikokan Generating Station.

Resolute Forest Products has responded to my inquiry about the number of hectares per year of harvest that will be required by claiming that “The pellets will be produced using sawdust generated at our Thunder Bay Sawmill, so there will be no additional harvesting associated with this project.” This answer implies vast amounts of pre-existing waste being generated on on ongoing basis. Atikokan Renewable Fuels has provided the number of wet tonnes harvested but not the land area required for harvest.

I estimate that roughly 20,000 hectares of forest will be cut under these contracts based on an average yield of black spruce clear-cut at 115 M3/ha and an average density of spruce chips at 400 kg/M3. Better estimates are welcome.

Of historical note, the original lignite-fuelled Atikokan Generating Station was one of the most costly coal-fired power stations ever built in the world. Built to employ workers from a near-by iron ore mine that was closing, the plant was designed to burn coal sourced from mines in southern Saskatchewan.

Post Script (Jan. 25, 2013): The Power Worker’s Union has pursued a long campaign of mostly thoughtful, public communications with respect to Ontario’s building power crisis. One aspect of the PWU’s campaign that damages their credibility is their continued advocacy for more forest burners. The National Post had another full page ad from the PWU on Jan. 24 presenting the PWU’s arguments. Those arguments have not evolved over several years. The PWU is still committed to wasteful forest burners.

Post Script (February 14, 2013): Here is news that OPG is considering converting the Thunder Bay power station into another forest burner.



  1. So does this mean that consumers should anticipate a similar outcome to be generated, by a gov’t-manufactured need for a boosted wood pellet industry vs affordable lumber for building — as we saw with the gov’t-manufactured need for the boosted ethanol industry vs affordable corn for food (both human and non-human)?

    At least using coal for powering electricity generation didn’t seem to create a gov’t manufactured shortage and artificially elevated price of something else that consumers needed and wanted more.

    The “Green Economy” looks browner every day.

    • Interesting and important point. The modern forest fiber industry is moving to zero waste. As this efficiency takes hold, any fiber going to the boiler will be cut for that purpose.

      Another consideration is that there is a legit wood pellet industry today supplying unsubsidized pellets to semi-automated home pellet stoves. These stoves typically displace fuel oil or propane for home heating. For some folks off the gas grid, these pellet stoves are a really good heating option. I am concerned that displacing coal with pellets might increase costs for home heating customers.

  2. To put the forest effects of this proposed project in context, we would need to know the actual costs (13.8 cents/kWh as per FIT??), the duration of the power contracts (40 years?), the time for forests to regenerate in the harvested areas (80 years?), the capacity factor (90%?). With those numbers, the facility would require about 25000 ha/TWh/year permanently tied to servicing the plant (correct me, if my calcs are off).

    As a comparison to hydro, BC Hydro’s two northern (and one proposed) hydro projects (WAC Bennett, Peace Canyon Dam and Site C) permanently submerged 8500 ha/TWh/year. I don’t have numbers for comparable hydro facilities (i.e. ones with peaking capability) in Ontario.

    The key difference here being that the 25000 ha would still have some ecological productivity during regrowth.

  3. Hi Tom,
    Unfortunately, you’re overstating the case — Pembina did not “approve” the Atikokan project, we were contracted to do fee-for-service analysis of a specific aspect of the project. Our analysis for Ontario Power Generation (OPG) focused on forest carbon and the greenhouse gas implications of using forest-based biomass, based on Ontario’s existing forest management plans.

    Our analysis did not assume any additional biomass harvesting to supply wood pellets to the OPG Atikokan station. Rather, it assumed the usage of roadside residues, a byproduct from the established forest sector and annual cut that, under business-as-usual practices in Ontario, is typically burned. The analysis did not conduct any financial or economic analysis of the pellet supply, conversion costs or operation/maintenance costs of repowering the Atikokan station.

    To learn more about the Pembina Institute’s consulting work, please visit: http://www.pembina.org/consulting

    • Thanks for joining this discussion.

      You assert that “Pembina did not ‘approve’ the Atikokan project”. Your statement leaves the key question hanging. Does Pembina support or oppose the conversion of the Atikokan generating station to burn forests?

      On Twitter on December 5th, Pembina refused my request to disclose how much you got paid for endorsing OPG’s fuelling plan for Atikokan citing confidentiality. I replied asking “So as to protect OPG’s privacy, will you disclose Pembina’s aggregate annual revenue (from) all Ontario gov’t sources?” Perhaps you can fill us in.

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