OCE helps bring new life to a small northern Ontario town

September 25, 2014

The Atikokan Generating Station, photo courtesy of Ontario Power Generation.

On Sept. 10, Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) joined in celebrating the grand opening of the province’s Ontario Power Generation - Atikokan Generating Station, the largest capacity completely biomass fuelled facility in North America.

Carole Champion, Ontario Centres of Excellence’s Director of Industrial Engagement and Sector Lead for Energy and Environment, was thrilled to be a part of the event.  As someone who worked closely with the people of Atikokan in the mid-2000s as their town underwent major upheaval and transformation, she understood the significance of the official event.  

“Atikokan is a story of people who cared enough to never give up and by sheer force of will made something happen. It’s a story of a community and mayor (Dennis Brown) who never gave up, a company (Ontario Power Generation) that cares about its employees and its investment in maintaining and renewing its facilities; a government that didn’t just provide financial support for the bio-energy research project but worked very hard to ensure the best possible outcomes; and a research community that worked alongside OCE and the Atikokan community.”

Now viewed as one of the continent’s most progressive climate change initiatives, the formerly coal-burning plant was a key focus for OCE for several years after the province announced its intensions to shut down coal plants. When the Ontario government subsequently introduced its plan to invest $4 million toward establishing a bioenergy research program associated with the generating station, OCE was handed responsibility for establishing and managing the Atikokan Bio-energy Research Centre (ABRC) program.

“It was a major challenge,” says Champion, who was OCE’s point person on the ABRC project, “ but one for which OCE was well suited given our experience in bringing together top researchers at universities and colleges across Ontario and industry leaders to develop leading-edge technologies for reshaping Ontario’s energy landscape.”

Working closely with Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Town of Atikokan, and Ontario Power Generation, OCE established a consortium of interests from academia, industry, and NGOs, and secured an additional $4.5 million in cash and in-kind partner funding. Twenty-nine professors supervising 87 students from six universities and colleges across the province were involved in the ABRC program. OCE would fund six projects designed to assess the availability of biomass in northwestern Ontario and the economics of harvesting and transporting the material to the generating station; optimal conditions for combustion; the resulting emissions and the environmental impacts of harvesting and combustion of biomass.

OCE’s mandate included another important component: help the town of Atikokan gain its economic footing. This was to be done by promoting sustainable use of northwestern Ontario bioenergy resources for generating electricity and developing local industry to make use of these resources.

Evidence of success on this front was evident to all those who attended this week’s official opening.

The town’s failing particleboard mill has become a wood pellet production plant. And the town’s forestry industry has begun to make a comeback. As noted by Mike McKinnon, editor of the Atikokan Progress, “years of declining newsprint usage had decimated the pulp and paper industry, but Ontario’s commitment to biomass offered a badly needed new market for forest fibre, and helped kick start the development of two new pellet mills, including the rebirth of Atikokan’s former particleboard mill.”  And, McKinnon added, the new wood biomass industry would also lead the nearby company, Resolute, to make a multi-million investment in a new lumber mill, scheduled to begin production in 2015.

The upturn in the town’s fortunes had a ripple effect leading to major enhancements to its summer Bass festival, and upgrades to its water treatment plant, a rebuilding of main street and repaving of the local airport.

“It was wonderful to see how the community has come alive again,” says Champion.  “The town itself looked much more prosperous.”