Biomass '10: Manitoba Hydro seizes biomass opportunities

By Anna Austin
The province of Manitoba has significant biomass resources and capabilities, and power utility Manitoba Hydro is working to capture all possible opportunities.

The fourth-largest utility in Canada, Manitoba Hydro is also the largest exporter of electricity to the U.S., according to Senior Biosystems Engineer Dennis St. George, who was a presenter at the Energy & Environmental Research Center's Biomass '10: Renewable Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop held July 20 and 21 in Grand Forks, N.D.

Currently, about 74 percent of the energy consumed in Manitoba is imported and nonrenewable, 45 percent of which is used for heating purposes, St. George said. He said the utility has been involved in many past and recent initiatives to advance the use of biomass as a fuel within the province, including organizing and leading a trade mission to Sweden and Denmark, both of which have fairly advanced biomass energy industries, for evaluation purposes. "Afterward, we organized a session and talked about what we saw and learned, and that helped us decide where we wanted to focus our efforts," St. George said.

There is lots of interest in biomass as a fuel, and it's growing continually, St. George continued, in large part because of its reliability. "There are many attributes that make an energy source functional and one of them is capacity, or the ability to deliver energy when you need to," he said. "With our hydro system, if we need to generate more power, it's nearly an instantaneous process. The problem with wind and solar is that when you get energy is really governed by when they are available. Biomass is much more like hydro-it has a firm capacity-and as a utility, that is what we like."

Manitoba Hydro currently runs the Power Smart Bioenergy Optimization Program, which provides financial incentives to customers who are interested in converting their raw forms of biomass-typically biomass already available at the site-to produce energy, displacing some or all of the energy purchased from Manitoba Hydro. "The business case for us behind this is that with our capacity links to the U.S., we can then put this energy into the U.S. market where it offers better value," St. George said. On the other end, the customer avoids the cost of purchasing fuels while addressing what was formerly a waste management issue.

He admitted the program has seen a few barriers, however. Initial capital costs for projects are significant and it's often difficult to obtain funding. Another barrier is that the technologies are not common. To address that issue, Manitoba Hydro has five demonstration projects underway with customers, to showcase new biomass technologies to others who are interested in doing similar things. They include replacing heavy fuel oil with pyrolysis oil at a pulp and paper mill to fuel a boiler and steam turbine combined-heat-and-power (CHP) system; installing a microgasifier at a tree nursery to gasify wood waste into heat and power for the facilities; converting wood waste to heat recovered by an Organic Rankine Cycle CHP system; conversion of wood and crop wastes into biochar for community-scale heat and power; and the conversion of livestock manure to fuel using anaerobic digestion.

St. George said that while the biogas demonstration project will be the smallest in terms of power produced, there is currently a moratorium on hog barn expansions in Manitoba, which was primarily driven by waste issues. "So one of the opportunities the industry has is to put in this kind of technology so they can expand," he said.

Next year, Manitoba will implement a CO2 emissions tax, which St. George described as the most prohibitive in North America. "When it hits next year, what we want to do is help customers avoid converting from coal over to electricity for heating requirements. Instead, we want to see if we can insert a new fuel source-biomass-as a substitute for coal."

There is great potential to use biomass as part of the energy supply in Manitoba, St. George concluded. "It's available here, grown locally, and it would help keep dollars at home. Success really depends a lot on what happens with policy and in the commodity markets."