Coal-fired power plants and mining companies alike are taking some first baby steps away from the environmental catastrophe that has been at the heart of the business plans of these industries — some of the heaviest emitters of greenhouse gasses — for decades. Signaling a downturn in coal’s reign of terror, the largest coal-fired power plant in North America is experimenting with using biomass instead. Biomass power is considered to be one of the cheapest ways to slash a region’s CO2 emissions; the generating station in question, in Ontario, would begin by burning woodchips and agricultural waste.

Feeding the ravenous beast will take some effort, though, so some of the Canadian province’s farmland likely would be used to grow crops that can be turned into fuel pellets, such as switchgrass or poplar. (Farming in Ontario has been on the wane, so new crop opportunities won't necessarily compete with food and they might actually create more jobs.) Though GHG emissions from burning plants are just as bad as those from burning coal, the assumption is that the fuel crops will be grown again, taking up the carbon released into the atmosphere and making the process of generation and re-generation ultimately carbon-neutral.

In early December the Ontario plant, which is owned by Ontario Power Generation, will conduct a three-day test burning wood pellets. Several small power plants with capacity under 100 megawatts generate power from a variety of biomass sources already, including methane gas from landfills and wood waste. But scaling up to the size of this 4,000 MW facility is a challenge on a completely different scale. A fair amount of regional support to make sure sufficient feedstock is available will be necessary before the power plant can cancel its coal deliveries. OPG’s not the only one eyeing its smokestacks. In North Carolina, new rules would finally curb toxic emissions from coal-fired plants that have basically had a free ride thanks to a string of legislative failures. This comes on the heals of the recent EPA ruling rejecting the permit for a new coal-fired plant in Utah on the grounds that the plan did not adequately control for carbon dioxide emissions.

And on the other end of the planet, Australian mining firms are considering solar options for powering their operations. Generally located off the grid in hard-to-reach areas, mining operations are usually powered by diesel generators. But the cost of importing the diesel to remote locations, combined with the plummeting price of raw materials and the anticipated launch of an Australian emissions trading scheme in 2010, has some companies spooked. According to the chief executive of Lloyd Energy Storage, a Sydney-based renewable energy systems company, several mining companies have approached him about installing solar power towers. In these systems, rows of mirrors focus the sun’s rays on a graphite block. Water continually flows through the block and heats up, creating steam that turns a turbine generator. The graphite blocks can retain their heat for several hours after dark, making the systems useful well beyond daylight hours.

All of which goes to say that climate change rhetoric and rule-making is slowly but surely pushing the worst emitters onto a different track. Not bad for a sinking economy.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2008. 

Copyright Environ Press 2008