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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2006

Other Voices

NORTHWESTERN ONTARIO: On the Road to Poverty or Prosperity?

By Larry Hebert

Larry HebertLarry Hebert is a graduate of Lakehead University (BA’69, Grad. Dip. Business’70, HBComm’78) and the University of Toronto (MBA’72) who served as General Manager of Thunder Bay Hydro from 1983 to 2003. He now works as an Energy and Human Resources Consultant with Genotran Consulting in Thunder Bay and has been working with SynFuel Technologies Inc. in their plans to construct and operate an electricity generating station in the City of Thunder Bay.
Email: larryhebert@tbaytel.net

By the first quarter of 2006, it was clear to everyone in the region that the high costs of all forms of energy were contributing significantly to a downward spiral in our economy. It is both a real and a perceived, or psychological, poverty and I am not sure which is worse.

While many issues can put one into a state of poverty, the real and psychological poverty being spawned by escalating energy prices, at home and for employers, is causing a “shock wave” across Northwestern Ontario as more and more forest companies close down or significantly reduce their operations.

If we can turn these problems of poverty into opportunities for prosperity, we can get our region back to a culture of independent, strong, self-reliant thinking that made Northwestern Ontario the grand and great place it once was, and can be again.

Some sectors that already reflect this thinking are Education, Health Sciences, and Telecommunications where we see leadership being shown by Lakehead University, Confederation College, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, and St. Joseph’s Care Group, along with their regional interconnected networks through modern communications technology. TBayTel has a real role to play if it makes the right decisions soon concerning its telecommunications strategy, including diversification, expansion, and strategic alliances. These sectors are all in a growth mode and, with the new Northern Ontario School of Medicine, are helping to create a positive, winning attitude for the region.

We still, however, need our resource industries, and those are being particularly affected by high energy costs. Fortunately for the Mining sector, high prices for their products are offsetting some of the energy costs. Mining cost structures are different from those of the Forest industry. Mining is only going to expand in our area, particularly in the Far North where First Nations should be able to prosper from the development of mines and the needed energy infrastructure to allow development.

The Forest sector – Ontario’s second largest export earner next to the Automotive sector – has not been as fortunate. Some have described its plight in Ontario as being hit by “the perfect storm” – a robust Canadian dollar, booming fibre costs, and escalating energy costs which have combined to result in the closing of plants entirely (Abitibi – Kenora) or partially (Neenah Paper – Terrace Bay and Weyerhaeuser – Dryden). The layoffs are massive and are hurting this region’s biggest Employment sector. Federal and provincial government aid packages are not providing the necessary solutions. However, several solutions are out there which are home-grown and could turn the “poverty” into “prosperity.”

We have a surplus of electricity in the region with Atikokan and the Thunder Bay coal plants staying open. Converting Thunder Bay to natural gas as a fuel makes no sense – nor does closing Atikokan, since Atikokan is a perfect test site for coal gasification. (It is a perfect test site because there are no other large industrial users in the vicinity that would compromise the coal-gasification or petroleum cokegasification test. It will either be cleaner than burning coal, or it won’t be, and the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) in their Supply Mix Report (December 2005) calls for further testing of this technology.)

Gasification is a process of reduction rather than burning, and is considered a “clean” technology. Coal and petroleum coke gasification is common in other parts of the world. In fact, the federal government is putting huge investment into Saskatchewan and Quebec for gasification technology.

The SynFuel Power Process uses gasification technology and can gasify any carbon-based product, including coal, petroleum coke, municipal waste, sludge from municipal waste treatment plants, wood fibre, peat, and other biomass material. Peat has some potential, as does wood fibre, but some environmental and supply issues make these two fuel sources better suited as secondary fuel sources.

Wind energy and solar energy, to a lesser degree, have some potential in the area. One wind energy company is looking to manufacture all or part of their product in Thunder Bay. Another opportunity could be in the manufacturing of micro-turbine windmills for home or small farm applications (50 kW – 150 kW in size). Photovoltaics are getting more refined and Thunder Bay, west to the Manitoba border, is in the best sun regime in Canada – although on the eastern edge of it. Conservation, or the wise use of energy, is another consideration to avoid generation. If we can conserve 3,000 MW of energy – just by not using it – that will avoid building 3,000 MW of generation capacity. The government should create or develop incentives for efficient motors, pumps, and lighting for industry and commercial applications. In fact, if governments are serious about “conservation,” one shouldn’t even be able to purchase an inefficient appliance.

Although energy choices and misuse may be contributing to our problems right now, we are on the threshold of developing and using new energy sources and forms. In fact, the gasification process, as an example, can produce hydrogen as a by-product. Along with local chemical plants, we could be at the forefront of the “Hydrogen Economy” which some are predicting as the fuel of the future. Wouldn’t it be great if Lakehead University, Confederation College, and the local engineering firms were the leaders in making the quantum leap in storage technologies to turn the current testing into commercial reality?

Confederation College would have an opportunity for e-training, whereby trades training could take place over the Internet from a site in Thunder Bay.

Lakehead University would have a huge research opportunity in carbon dioxide capturing and storage. If we get the grid to the Far North, we get First Nations communities off diesel, allowing them to develop significant amounts of “green” run-of-the-river hydro products. As well, up to 35 mines may be developed in the mineral rich north, along with First Nations sawmilling and wood manufacturing capacity. Ethanol production from wood and agricultural waste becomes another energy opportunity.

The opportunities above can turn our real and apparent road to poverty to one of opportunity and prosperity for Northwestern Ontario. If unwise energy use and choices are part of our problem today, the “right” forms of energy will also be the vehicles to allow us to attract industry and commerce, yet make a significant contribution to meeting the emission requirements of the Kyoto Accord.

Opinions expressed on this page are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lakehead University Magazine or Lakehead University. The Magazine welcomes your opinions on this article, or any other issue of interest to the broader Lakehead community. Letters to the editor and submissions for Other Voices can be sent to the Editor, Office of Communications, BB1049, Lakehead University, by fax 807-346-7770, or by email to  frances.harding@lakeheadu.ca. 
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