The Thunder Bay Generating Station will be converted from burning coal to burning advanced biomass as a fuel for creating electricity.

In an announcement made in Thunder Bay Friday, local MPPs Michael Gravelle and Bill Mauro said the plant will become the first advanced biomass station in the world that was formerly used as a coal plant.

A previous plan to convert the station to natural gas was cancelled a year ago by Ontario Power Generation, putting into question the plant's future. At the time the Ontario Power Authority said it believed it could get the necessary power for the region from other sources.

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The conversion of Thunder Bay's Mission Island Generating Station from coal power to natural gas was halted late last year as Ontario Power Generation said it couldn't strike a power purchase agreement with the Ontario Power Authority. (Ontario Power Generation)

Modifications to the plant will begin next year, when the Mission Island station stops burning coal. By then it will be the last coal-fired generating station in Ontario.

In a statement, Energy minister Bob Chiarelli said the conversion  "will ensure Thunder Bay has access to clean, reliable power.  This initiative will leave a healthier environment and cleaner air for our children and grandchildren."

Advanced biomass is a renewable fuel derived from forest or agricultural sources that has similar characteristics to coal. It contains about 75 per cent less nitrogen oxide than coal emissions and virtually no sulphur dioxide.

In September, OPG conducted a successful test burn using 100 per cent advanced biomass, which the government says was the first test of its kind in the world.

'Fifty percent'

Proponents of keeping the generating station in operation said having the plant burn biomass is a start.

"Five years is really good. A commitment to keep the plant alive is really good." said Iain Angus, with the Northwest Energy Task Force.

But questions remain about the plant's ability to provide enough power between 2016 and 2020.

"The plant will in effect operate at fifty percent of its original capacity," Angus told reporters after the announcement. He said his group will push for a significant increase in the contract for advanced biomass and for the eventual conversion of the plant to natural gas. Angus added in a statement that in the longer term the region will need more energy to meet all its needs.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said it is also his ultimate goal is to have the plant burning natural gas and operating indefinitely.

"It's not so much of a battle now, it's more of a scuffle to get the rest of it done. We've done a lot of the heavy lifting now, and we're seeing some fruits of that."

Looking to the long-term

The province says it will determine the long-term future of the generating station in three to five years.

MPP Bill Mauro said the province and Ontario Power Authority will look at electricity demand in the northwest after the new East-West transmission line is completed north of Lake Superior, and taking into account the power that co-generation facilities at paper mills are feeding into the grid.

"So, all of this factors in to where we're going to be, three years or five years from now, we'll have a better sense of that. And, a decision longer term on the future of the plant will be made then."

Mauro said at that time, a decision could be made to convert the plant to natural gas, continue burning biomass, or close the generating station altogether.