Hot, dry, drought conditions in northwestern Ontario late this past summer sprang North America's largest biomass-fuelled power plant in Atikokan into action.
With the English River and Winnipeg River hydroelectric stations experiencing low water conditions and reduced power production, it was the wood pellet-fired Atikokan Generating Station that picked up the slack to feed communities and industry in the region.
Ontario Power Generation's Atikokan plant, 200 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, was running 24/7 for a three-week period, between Aug. 22 and Sept. 12, at the request of the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), Ontario's energy regulator.
Atikokan is categorized as a peaking plant, used only when demand for electricity spikes across the Ontario grid, usually in evenings, mornings, during heat waves or cold spells.
Earlier this year, the plant ran for two continuous stretches during a frosty period last February.
Darcey Bailey, director of operations, said a planned plant maintenance shutdown was cancelled last spring because of the IESO's concerns for system needs.
Once this full operating period concluded on Sept. 12, the plant was scheduled to head into its planned plant outage.
With its staff of 70, Atikokan Generating Station is capable of producing 205 megawatts to the grid, powering homes, businesses and industry when needed, including major drawers of power like paper mills, mines and large regional centres like Thunder Bay.
Commissioned in 1984, the plant underwent a two-year conversion from burning Western Canada coal to wood pellets, finishing that refurbishment project in 2014. The plant consumes 90,000 tonnes of wood pellet annually.
The plant has storage capacity for 10,000 tonnes of pellets in two silos, "but it can vary wildly depending on demand," said Bailey.
If tasked to run at 205 megawatts, "we can burn through those pellets very quickly, much quicker than our pellet suppliers can supply us."
At full load, the plant consumes 130 tonnes of pellets per hour.
For this run, Bailey said they needed to ration their pellet supply in working toward their planned shutdown this month. The pellet inventory had to be at zero by Sept. 12.
It takes a bit of math, he said, to determine how to manage their fuel supply to provide as many megawatts as possible to the grid while making some spot orders to their pellet suppliers.
The generating plant relies on two wood pellets suppliers, nearby BioPower in the town of Atikokan and Resolute Forest Products in Thunder Bay, the latter a two-and-a-half hour drive by transport truck.
Bailey said their suppliers are usually flexible and reliable enough to divert a few hundred tonnes of pellets on relatively short notice.
"They understand our needs vary from time to time and when we get a special request like this from IESO they also understand what that means and how important that is to respond."
Looking to the future, the demand for power in the northwest is predicted to increase in the next few years, especially in the mining sector.
To the northwest, 180 kilometres away, Treasury Metals is close to making a construction decision of the first of a long-awaited series of open-pit and underground gold mines near the village of Wabigoon, 20 kilometres east of Dryden.
Bailey said any increase in demand helps OPG as a supplier, whether it directly impacts the Atikokan operation or hydroelectric stations in the region.
"The future of demand in northwestern Ontario is looking up," said Bailey, as mining projects move from the exploration stage to production, and with the overall electrification of the economy as the manufacturing and the transportation sectors move to get off its reliance on fossil fuels to more net zero emission operations.
To feed the region's resource sector, a new transmission line is in the planning stages.
The Waasigan Transmission Line is a proposed double-circuit 230-kilovolt (kV) line between the Lakehead Transformer Station at Shuniah, just north of Thunder Bay to a transformer station at Atikokan. A single circuit 230 kV line will run north to Dryden.
Hydro One said there's a host of mining and forestry operations in the area.
A Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission report predicts the demand for electricity is expected to increase 180 per cent over the next five years.
"Any improvements to the grid in northwestern Ontario is helpful for all of us," said Bailey, offering customers greater reliability and capacity.
Atikokan's former sister plant, the Thunder Bay Generating Station, was decommissioned in 2018 and is in the process of being demolished. It was converted from coal to burning a specialty Norweigan wood pellet and also reduced to peaking plant status in 2015.
Despite its age, Bailey said the Atikokan plant remains in "nearly mint" condition, crediting his engineering, maintenance staff, and the operators that run it.
"It's in tip top shape. It's ready to run for decades to come."
The economic ripple effect of the plant to the 2,700 people in the town of Atikokan is huge. Hundreds of businesses and households are reliant on the local spending created from power plant jobs.
A recent consultant's report prepared for Ontario Power Generation on the potential economic impact of extending the plant's operating life in five-year and 10-year scenarios shows a significant multiplier effect.
A five-year scenario (2024-2025 to 2028-2029) shows the power plant's job creation impact is 1,682 full-time jobs (direct, indirect, induced) across the northwest. A 10-year scenario (2024-2025 to 2033-2034) boosts that to 3,296 jobs.