Within one year, Ontario Power Generation brought online two pellet-fueled power stations, both converted from coal. While Atikokan Generating Station uses traditional wood pellets to generate up to 200 MW of electricity, Thunder Bay Generation Station is a peaking plant that uses advanced biomass pellets.
Ontario Power Generation has made a name for itself within the biomass power sector and broader electricity generation industry, with two very experienced employees heading up OPG’s activity in the space. Brent Boyko, biomass business development director, and Faron Rollins, thermal conversion project manager, both possess engineering degrees, and, after being closely involved in the Atikokan and Thunder Bay conversions, consider themselves biomass believers and are armed with the knowledge and experience to help roll out similar projects elsewhere.
Then And Now
Rollins began his career while attending college at the University of Western Ontario, joining OPG’s team at its Lambton Generation Station, a four-unit, 2,000-MW power facility, while he earned his engineering degree. “It was a summer job after my third year [of college],” he says. “When I graduated, they asked me to come back, so I guess I didn’t screw things up too bad.”
That invite led to a 13-year stint at the Lambton station, where Rollins worked in various capacities and furthered his education to achieve a MBA at the University of Windsor. After wrapping up a flue gas desulphurization project at Lambton, Rollins was offered a position at Atikokan as a maintenance superintendent. “I wanted to do something different, so I took the job, and I was there for five and a half years. I moved to other positions, including station manager…then I got another offer to move to Nanticoke as a programming manager.”
Rollins spent 12 years at Nanticoke, where he moved to production manager, maintenance manager and was finally asked to take on a project management role, which he has been doing ever since. “I took on a gas conversion at Thunder Bay. We were ready for a contract but were unsuccessful in getting a PPA, so we didn’t go forward. I ended up taking over the Atikokan [biomass] conversion and then the Thunder Bay advanced biomass conversion.”
Boyko grew up in northwest Ontario’s Fort Frances, just across from pulp and paper town International Falls. “If you wanted a high-paying, technical job, you got a job at the mill,” he says. “I got on as a summer student in high school.”
Boyko attended Lakehead University in Thunder Bay to earn his chemical engineering degree and eventually scored another job back at the mill as a power and recovery production engineer, which resulted in several major career accomplishments, including startup of a 100-MW, combined-cycle gas turbine. “From there, I continued in pulp and paper and went to the West Coast, because I had evolved through the technical ranks and wanted to get more management experience,” Boyko explains. “I went to a fine paper producer out there, got into line management and spent five years out there. Then, things started going south for the pulp and paper industry—a lot of facilities were going under—so I took an opportunity with a construction material company that was burning natural gas and shutting down a two-kiln operation and converting to coal. This was somewhat timely from a fueling standpoint, but very untimely from a carbon cap and trade system, which came a number of years later in British Columbia. They’re now looking to substitute coal with biomass.”
After moving back to Ontario and getting involved in pulp and paper management roles once again, Boyko, not to be mistaken for his brother Kurt, also an Ontario engineer with some background in biomass, seized an opportunity at OPG to become station manager of Atikokan. “It was an awesome opportunity,” he says. “I’ve continued to be the head cheerleader and chief evangelist of promoting our [biomass] solution worldwide, and it’s been exciting.”
Currently wrapping up work at the station in Thunder Bay, Rollins, who lives in the town, spends a few days per week at the plant, and the remainder at Atikokan. “We have some reservations that are requiring attention, so we’ve been getting plans in place to resolve them. I’m out there following up on these reservations and getting details and feedback from our engineering groups. I want to keep my presence in Atikokan. I’ve done a lot of work there, we’ve had a lot of success, and I want to maintain my relationship with the station.”
Meanwhile, Boyko is busy spreading the good word of biomass power, traveling throughout North America to present at and attend conferences, and also plays an integral role in AGS’s fuel supply relationships. “I speak with our suppliers regularly—Rentech and Resolute—about deliveries, fuel quality and how they’re evolving,” he says. “They’re new to the game as well, and there’s been a learning curve for us all.”
Boyko also regularly guides facility tours of stakeholders, government officials, fuel suppliers, other utilities and more. “Some are working on big-picture elements—how we can build more of these facilities,” he says. “Some are intrigued with Thunder Bay, its small footprint and what we did on a shoestring budget. We’ve hosted visitors from Asia, Japan, several American and Canadian utilities. European utilities are even expressing interest. It really does mean a lot when you have a peer-to-peer utility discussion where one says, ‘Yes, this is doable, we’ve done it, come and see, we’ll show you how.’”
“We’re more than just a power plant; we’re the reference facility in North America. It’s us and Drax [globally], and we need to get the word out. With emerging regulations coming in our province, a carbon cap and trade regime and the U.S. EPA’s work in the U.S., it’s going to be a game-changer. People are looking at biomass now— it’s a very complimentary solution in a number of jurisdictions worldwide.”
While Boyko’s and Rollins’ current focuses are mainly on OPG’s Atikokan and Thunder Bay stations, that may not be the end of the biomass road for the utility. “We’ve still got two coal-powered stations, Lambton and Nanticoke,” Rollins says. “We don’t have any plans right now other than to maintain them, because power load demand in the province right now is pretty flat due to a surplus of generating capacity, but going into 2024, our projection is that surplus will be gone. Biomass or gas may be another fuel option at those stations. OPG will soon begin refurbishing its Darlington nuclear station, a 4,000 MW plant with four units, each of which will take 3.5 years, according to Rollins.
And, Boyko says, there’s the possibility in assisting others in converting. “There’s a lot of interest in the far north, a lot of communities don’t have the opportunity to connect to the grid, so small biomass could play a role there.”
Finally, Boyko and Rollins emphasize their belief that biomass should be done right, particularly when it comes to sustainability, and those with an eye on what OPG has been doing have seemingly been satisfied. “We’ve had environmentalists from Europe come in and look at our sustainability strategy,” Boyko adds. “At the end of the tour, they usually say ‘you guys are doing it right.’”