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Wired for a new start

District energy model being proposed for Cochrane generating station
Cochrane has initiated talks with the province to put its idled cogeneration plant back online with a district heating plan.

The power generating station in Cochrane could be started up again this spring, under a new district energy model, thanks to ongoing talks that are yielding progress between stakeholders and the province.

The 42-megawatt cogeneration facility, currently majority owned by Northland Power, shut down in May of 2015 when a new contract could not be negotiated with the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).

Last year, despite efforts to be included in a procurement process that awarded 16 renewable energy contracts to projects across the province, the Cochrane station was shut out again.

But finding an ally in the new provincial energy minister, Sudbury MPP Glenn Thibeault, renewed efforts to reach a compromise, and Cochrane Mayor Peter Politis is optimistic about the results.

“There is steady dialogue now, which is completely different than what was taking place over two years,” Politis said. “There are specialists assigned by the government to work with us, and we have specialists with Northland Power who are working with us and the group, as well,” he added.

“We've pulled together all the interest groups just before Christmas and brainstormed a little more, and what we're doing together now is putting together a business plan.”

Politis said the plan is fairly aggressive: the group is looking at a May or June startup.

But as a “turnkey” operation, the plant doesn’t require any additional infrastructure and can be up and running quickly.

Under the new model, the plant would start by supplying to industrial customers under the local utility, Northern Ontario Wires. That includes the two local lumber mills —Tembec and Rockshield Engineered Wood Products — and the Town of Cochrane.

If that’s successful, the utility can then feed power to the nearby municipalities of Kapuskasing and Iroquois Falls, which are also already part of the distribution network.

And if that works, the utility could look at expanding the distribution network from there. At that point, Politis said, the utility may have to acquire portions of other networks.

But he doesn’t see that as a major hurdle.

“Because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we can’t figure out it out,” he said. “We just need to make sure what we’re doing is something that’s best for everybody, and if we do and the will is there, then we’ll figure it out.”

Aside from supplying cheaper power to local customers, Politis said there are socioeconomic benefits to the plan as well.

The biomass portion of the plant annually burns 175,000 tonnes of biomass — wood waste from the two lumber mills that would otherwise pile up in the municipal landfill.

And Politis believes there could be additional benefits: excess heat from the plant could be used to heat greenhouses to grow and supply food in neighbouring communities, and cheaper energy alternatives, like industrial pellets, could be made available as well.

“So when it’s all said and done, we’re not only supplying power to the district itself here, and we create a sense of independence that way,” Politis said. “We’re creating economies, we’re shrinking the carbon footprint for the two facilities and woodmills that are here, and we’re also helping the social aspect of the area and the dynamics around that with the economies that go along with it.”

Because energy is being produced closer to home, Politis even predicts a lowering of the Global Adjustment fee on customers’ energy bills — a delivery charge added to all hydro bills across the province.

The one hurdle stakeholders would have to overcome is the IESO regulation that dictates independent energy suppliers must supply energy to the provincial grid at large, which then distributes that energy to customers.

But Politis believes the province is listening and, should the Cochrane model prove successful, the province might look to replicate it elsewhere.

“We like to set the bar high, but I don't think it's an insurmountable bar — I think it's very realistic,” Politis said. “Part of the opportunity we have here is we get away from the IESO completely by supplying directly to ourselves as opposed to the grid, and we really think that's the hurdle we've got to get through.”