The site of the former Nanticoke Generating Station is a study in contrasts.
On a busy day, the giant coal-fired generating station – the largest in North America – would burn 30,000 tonnes of fuel.
That’s as much coal as a large freighter would deposit on site during a regular run across Lake Erie from Pennsylvania.
The coal yard itself contained as much as five million tonnes in a giant black pile.
Meanwhile, as many as 1,000 full-time employees worked on site. They were either operating the 4,000-megawatt plant or building and maintaining it.
But the giant twin stacks are gone today, while workers with the firm Delsan-AIM dismantle the massive powerhouse they stood beside until last year.
“I’ve been told this is the largest demolition project in all of North America,” Joe Mateus, Ontario Power Generation’s demolition manager, said during a site visit on March 29.
The demolition has been underway for more than a year and will continue through the summer and beyond. The massive powerhouse will be levelled sometime in September. But the site won’t sit idle.
In early March, the utility flipped the switch on a 44-megawatt solar installation. It consists of 192,000 solar panels spread over 260 acres.
Unlike the hydro generated when coal was king, the power out of Nanticoke today is clean and renewable. And like most every solar farm, it takes only a handful of people to operate.
Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett and many others tried to save the Nanticoke station after the former provincial Liberal government phased out coal in 2014.
For a time, converting the plant’s eight boilers to biomass fuel was the most promising alternative.
Farmers in Norfolk and Haldimand mobilized in case the call went out for fast-growing hemp, miscanthus grass or willow as the new fuel of choice.
But the business case for biomass was weak.
During last Friday’s tour, Mike Martelli, OPG’s president of renewable generation, said the cost of converting the utility’s Atikokan station to biomass has been steep.
Basic biomass, he said, needs to be sheltered to keep it from getting wet. This, he said, is expensive.
Some leading-edge firms have come up with a method for processing biomass that doesn’t require sheltering from the elements. But these companies are in Scandinavia and Texas.
“Biomass isn’t cheap,” Martelli said. “It’s an expensive conversion. Transporting fuel is too expensive.”
Solar power isn’t cheap either.
For all its environmental drawbacks, the Nanticoke station’s saving grace was the three cents per kilowatt hour cost of producing electricity. Coal kept hydro bills down while serving as a draw for Ontario’s once-thriving manufacturing sector.
But the days of cheap electricity are gone thanks to the Green Energy Act. In a recent report, the Fraser Institute said solar providers in Ontario today receive about 48 cents per kilowatt hour.
This compares with seven cents per kilowatt hour for nuclear, six cents a kilowatt hour for hydro-electric power, and 14 cents a kilowatt hour for wind.
Advocates of renewable energy say technological advances are driving down the cost of renewables everyday.
Yet officials weren’t willing to put that assertion to the test during last Friday’s tour in Nanticoke. OPG officials said the price Ontario is paying for this electricity is a secret.
“Because of our contract, that is confidential,” says OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly. “That is proprietary information.”
Whatever this installation is costing Ontarians, stakeholders in Six Nations and the Mississaugas of the Credit are pleased with it.
The Six Nations Development Corporation and the Mississauga First Nation have invested in the Nanticoke solar farm. They will reap the benefits for the next 20 years.
“I was pushing for partnerships and I was pushing for access to capital through the 1990s,” said Larry Sault, former chief of the Mississaugas near Hagersville.
“This to me is all I’ve been pushing for over the last 30 years. We’ve come from the dream to the reality. This is a serious project for us and our future.”
This is also a serious project for Six Nations but by no means the biggest of its kind.
Six Nations spokesperson Tabitha Curley pointed out that the reserve’s investment wing also has stakes in the 100-megawatt Grand Renewable Solar project near Cayuga, the 230-megawatt Niagara Regional Wind Farm, and 11 other renewable energy projects.