Countdown to obsolescence: A look inside the Belledune coal-fired plant
When emission targets force closure of plant in 2030 it will leave behind 7 km of belts, 118 jobs
It's been unusually hot on New Brunswick's north shore this summer — so hot, in fact, that the province's last coal-fired power plant has been generating a bit of climate-change irony.
NB Power's Belledune station has been burning more coal, and generating more electricity, than it normally does in the middle of summer.
It's feeding hungry utility grids in New Brunswick and New England, where people are running their air conditioners harder and longer because of a summer heat wave — a heat wave considered to be another indicator of climate change.
In other words, Belledune is burning more planet-warming coal this summer to help people cope with the warming of the planet.
"This summer, with the heat, there's a higher demand for electricity in the province and in the United States," says Eric Fournier, the plant's maintenance superintendent.
"That's why this summer, we've noticed we're generating more electricity. Normally we don't see heat like this all summer."
It's not a huge uptick: Belledune averages 1,500 megawatts a day in summer, about half of what it does in winter, and one day last week, generation hit 1,550 megawatts. But it does translate into slightly higher emissions.
It's hard to understand: why would we look at one small coal-powered plant in northern New Brunswick when it's really doing all the things it should be doing? - Phil Landry, NB Power
Belledune spewed about 2.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2016.
That represents more than one-third of total GHG emissions by heavy industry in New Brunswick. Belledune is the province's second-biggest emitter after the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
But the irony of burning more coal to cool this little corner of an overheating planet has an expiry date of 2030.
A question mark over Belledune
Belledune is NB Power's youngest power plant. It began operating in 1993, and its design allows it to continue to 2040.
But under the federal government's climate plan, coal-fired electricity generation must be phased out a decade before that, in 2030.
That puts a huge question mark over the plant's 118 jobs in a high-unemployment region of the province.
"It's one of the bigger taxpayers in the village on the industrial side and they are good-paying jobs," says Joel Noel, the Belledune mayor.
"There's a lot of people from the village who work there, and not just from the village, but from the whole surrounding area, from Campbellton to Miramichi. The power plant in Belledune is not just a Belledune issue. It's a provincial issue."
NB Power's executive director of power generation, Phil Landry, says Belledune has always complied with increasingly stringent environmental regulations, and that makes the phase-out hard to swallow for some staff.
For example, there's a chemical process that diverts 92 per cent of the sulphur dioxide emissions and turns them into gypsum.
Hard to figure
"Part of our challenge, I guess, is our employees understand how well the station runs and how clean the station runs," Landry says.
"It's hard to understand: why would we look at one small coal-powered plant in northern New Brunswick when it's really doing all the things it should be doing?"
"By the same token we are all New Brunswickers, and we all understand the need and the requirement to make sure we keep our country and our planet clean.
"So, generally, I think our employees are OK with phasing out coal, but ... they are very interested to hear about the solution we will find to extend the life."
End of 'reign'
Fournier says his employees at the plant are aware of the looming phase-out and the policy debate behind it.
"It definitely affects people's thoughts," he says. "Everybody's proud of what they do. All the employees are proud to come to work and generate electricity.
"I guess society has put us in that situation where coal is not the best fuel source or the most popular fuel source. There's some feeling ... that people want to end its reign, for lack of a better term. So there's a bit of a strange feeling when it comes to that."
7 kilometres of belts
Belledune's coal comes by ship from Colombia to the Port of Belledune and is mixed with inexpensive petroleum coke from the United States. The coal is 72 per cent of the mix and the coke represents the rest.
Ships carrying coal into the port can attach directly to a long, enclosed conveyor belt, part of the seven kilometres of belts at the plant.
For larger ships, which can carry up to 60,000 tonnes of coal, the port has a large unloading device on a moveable crane-like arm. Its rotating buckets dip right into the hulls of ships to scoop the coal onto the belt. It can take 48 hours to unload a boatload of coal.
The port once relied on the power plant for 90 per cent of its business. But it has diversified its customer base, and the plant now represents only 48 per cent of shipping through the port.
From the wharf, the coal moves along the conveyor to a large storage dome. Eventually it is fed into the plant itself, where a massive boiler ignites it, creating steam that turns a massive turbine to create electricity.
The boiler is suspended by rods from the ceiling of the plant because it expands from the heat of the giant fireball inside.
'Climate change is here'
When the federal climate plan was first announced, provincial politicians floated the idea of an offset agreement with Ottawa that would let Belledune burn coal past 2030 in return for emission reductions elsewhere in the province.
Landry says NB Power isn't ruling out some reduced use of coal past the deadline, if the province can still meet its reduction targets, "but our goal is to come off coal by 2030."
Environmentalist Lois Corbett of the New Brunswick Conservation Council says she's heartened to see NB Power embrace the objective.
"There's a great understanding that climate change is here," she says. "It's now, it's here, it's happening."
Corbett, who sits on a federally appointed panel studying the transition away from coal, says recent ice storms and heat waves seem to have persuaded people that change is needed.
"The folks on our coasts recognize that something needs to be done," she said. "We're not in a state of denial in New Brunswick."
Solutions that don't completely exist
NB Power is looking at a range of alternate fuels for Belledune for after 2030.
CEO Gaetan Thomas talked last December about a new and largely unproven technology to convert hydrogen from seawater into electricity.
And in June, Premier Brian Gallant announced that a company called Maritime Iron wants to build an iron refinery at Belledune. He said gas by-product from the refinery could be burned in the power plant, reducing its use of coal.
Landry admits it's far from clear these alternatives will be feasible.
"If that technology existed today, it would be what I would call easy," he said. "You would go look at the technology and figure out how to adapt it to your boiler.
"This is a a little bit different from the standpoint that we're looking at potential solutions that really don't completely exist today or that haven't been used in that scenario today."
Other possibilities that have been discussed--what Corbett calls "some less-science-fiction-related options"--include burning biomass from wood, or natural gas arriving by pipeline or in liquefied form by ship.
"It's not like we're still trying to figure what are the things we're going to look at to try to get to 2030," Corbett says. "We're working on those things today. So I'm quite confident we'll find a solution."
A tight timeline
There's been no change yet to how Belledune operates, though Fournier says there have been more and more researchers and consultants coming through the plant to take a look at how it works.
"Of course it is a bit of distraction to the current operation as far as where people's mindsets are at."
In the world of electric generation stations, 12 years is not a long time to choose a new technology and convert the plant. "The timeline is pretty tight," he says.
Fournier has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of New Brunswick and has worked at Belledune for 14 years. At 48, "I'll probably still be around" to see the plant either convert to a new fuel or wind down.
But more than 75 of the plant's 118 employees are older than 50, and NB Power needs to hire to replace them.
Some potential hires are already asking about the plant's future, but Fournier doesn't think the uncertainty will scare them away from taking jobs. Applicants are reminded that they'll be able to move to other NB Power operations if they need to.
NB Power is not alone
Corbett believes the utility will find a new fuel source that will allow Belledune to continue operating, but with dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"This isn't something that NB Power is struggling with all by itself," she says. "Coal plants all over the world are looking at what other sources of fuel can we use."
Fournier says he follows media coverage of energy and climate issues closely, so he's well aware his work is part of a broader debate.
"There's no denying coal has its reputation and the whole world is tending to try to move away from coal, with some exceptions," he says. "It's a funny situation to be in when you work in a coal-fired station because it is your future right now.
"So that's a little bit intimidating, having it up in the air, but as a person and an employee, even, I understand where we're going with climate change and what the government's trying to do. It's change."