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Ontario Bumping Coal for Biomass

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Instead of shoveling coal into the furnace, Ontario wants to go big with biomass. The province’s four coal-fired power plants are set to be phased out by 2014, but why let those plants go to waste when they could keep on working, but with lower emissions?

Government-owned Ontario Power Generation said this week that it’s looking to get pricing information from suppliers to help plan the potential switch, and OPG put out an official Request For Expressions of Interest for the supply of biomass. The power group plans to only use renewable biomass sources — that is, biomass from sustainable forest-based and non-food agricultural products and by-products, but not from waste material. We’ve updated our coal deathwatch map.

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Of course, those power plants still won’t be emission-free — burning is burning, after all. But biomass, which burns a lot cleaner than coal, is considered to be “carbon neutral,” because the amount of carbon released when burned is equal to the amount absorbed by the plant while it was growing. In theory, that balance can be maintained, as long as the use of biomass doesn’t cause the clear-cutting of forests, or the use of food as fuel, as in corn-based ethanol.

The switch could start as early as the fourth quarter of 2011, with at least 2 million metric tons of biomass expected to be consumed annually, if the program gets fully up and running. Ontario Power Generation has already gotten a head start on the move, conducting a test of 100-percent biomass fuel at its Atikokan Generating Station in northwestern Ontario last summer. Partial burn tests have also taken place at two of the other coal-power plants.

Some power companies in the U.S. are also looking at making the switch, with Georgia Power, part of the Southern Co. (s SO), announcing last year that it was seeking approval from regulators to convert an old coal-fired plant to burn biomass.