Brooklyn biomass energy plant and wood yard – December 21, 2021. Photo:Simon Ryder-Burbidge

The Ecology Action Centre is urging the provincial government to rescind or revoke a directive to Nova Scotia Power to maximize the burning of biomass to generate electricity. 

That instruction was first given by the McNeil government in May 2020 after ongoing delays in receiving renewable energy from Labrador.

“In January and again in March, Nova Scotia Power reported to the Utility and Review Board that they were now receiving the Nova Scotia block of hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls,” says Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator with the EAC. “As a result, NSP has been given permission by the UARB to start charging ratepayers for the $1.7 billion cost of the Maritime Link between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. 

“And yet,” continues Plourde, “the biomass plant in Port Hawkesbury is still running at full capacity and so was the one in Brooklyn until it was damaged in a storm this spring. Burning extra biomass is no longer needed for Nov Scotia Power to meet its Renewable Energy Targets and should therefore be discontinued.”

Plourde goes on to note that although Nova Scotia still considers biomass a “renewable” fuel, many scientists consider this position the result of a “critical accounting error” when dealing with GHG emissions. 

The Halifax Examiner asked Natural Resources and Renewable Energy Minister Tory Rushton if he will rescind the directive to Nova Scotia Power to maximize the use of biomass in their fuel mix. The response from Rushton does not directly answer the question but sure sounds like a “no.”

“Clean energy from Muskrat Falls plays a big part in our plan to generate 80% of our electricity from renewables by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050,” says the email statement from Rushton. “Muskrat Falls, via the Maritime Link, is still delivering less than what was anticipated. While it has, at times, delivered the full Nova Scotia Block and Supplemental Energy, it hasn’t done so consistently. These delays and high fossil fuel prices mean that biomass remains a small but important component of our renewable energy mix.”

Rushton does not indicate how much power from Muskrat Falls will need to flow before he would consider scrapping the current biomass policy. 

There is no benchmark. Nova Scotia Power is required by the Utility and Review Board to file monthly reports that indicate how much electricity is being received over the subsea cable from Newfoundland known as the Maritime Link. The province has received almost all of this “NS Block” for the first five months of this year (the equivalent to about 10% of the province’s energy requirements). 

But Nova Scotia has yet to receive any of the “Supplemental Block,” which would displace an additional 10% of coal-fired generation. That energy isn’t scheduled to flow before September at the earliest and remains in doubt because General Electric has still not completed the commissioning of software to control the flow from Labrador to Newfoundland over the Labrador Island Link.

Hydro or Forestry?

And while the McNeil government and now the Houston government say the delay in Muskrat Falls is the reason for burning more biomass, the catalyst appears to have been tied to finding markets for sawmill waste after Northern Pulp closed in January 2020.

Rushton’s response to the Ecology Action Centre’s plea to stop maximizing the use of biomass also states: “The Minister’s directive requires that any use of biomass for electricity generation would use only bi-products from current forestry activities, not whole trees or primary forestry products, and must fit in with our plans to fight climate change.”.

Ray Plourde with the Ecology Action Centre isn’t buying it. He says roundwood harvested by Wagner and Great Northern Timber continue to feed the boiler at Port Hawkesbury Paper. 

The yard at Brooklyn Power, a 30MW biomass boiler owned by Emera that was damaged during a February storm, was also full of wood at the time the above photo was taken in December of 2021. 

Emma Cochrane, a spokesperson for Emera, tells the Examiner this is “unmerchantable wood” and that “Brooklyn Power has been actively attempting to sell this wood to other waste markets, and only if unsuccessful it may eventually have to be chipped and used at site after operations resume.” 

Cochrane says the company is planning for the boiler to be back in service late this fall but it’s possible repairs may take until early 2023 to complete. 

An audit done by Bates White for the Utility and Review Board five years ago said the electricity generated from the biomass boiler in Brooklyn was the most expensive in the province. The directive to Nova Scotia Power ordering it to re-start the ageing Brooklyn facility included a top-up in the range of $7-10 million a year paid to Emera, the owner of Brooklyn Power, to cover maintenance and “wear and tear.”

“With Nova Scotia Power seeking approval for double-digit rate increases, this is one area where the government can help lower electricity costs and reduce real greenhouse gas emissions at the same time”, argues Plourde.

Today’s biomass policy appears to ignore advice provided a dozen years by a Steering Panel on Phase 2 of a Natural Resources Strategy. The panel was chaired by retired Chief Justice Constance Glube and the other members were businessman Allan Shaw and Joe Marshall, Mi’kmaq senior advisor to the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative. 

From the 2010 report called “A Natural Balance”:

The Steering Panel acknowledges the many pressures facing the province: among them, the need to reduce greenhouse gases, the call for biomass for power generation, the requirement for economic growth, and the reality of the province’s fiscal situation. While mindful of these pressures, the panel strongly urges caution on any decision by government to approve use of biomass for power generation. The Steering Panel advises that the province view the current agreement between NewPage Port Hawkesbury Ltd. and Nova Scotia Power Inc. as a pilot project and carefully monitor its impact on forests over time, basing future decisions on those findings.

Nova Scotia does not have the wood capacity for biomass use to make much of a difference even provincially. It is counter-intuitive for the province to protect the environment by cutting down too many trees or reducing the quality of already thin and acidic soils. The province should instead encourage the exploration and expansion of other sustainable methods to generate power and, at the same time, methods to conserve energy and reduce demand.

The response from the government of the day was to limit the amount of biomass that could be used for electricity production to 350,000 dry tonnes (700,000 tonnes at the stump). 

As Plourde points out, it’s unclear if there has been any monitoring or enforcement of that cap. Plourde suggests the decision in May 2020 to “maximize” biomass production at both Port Hawkesbury and Brooklyn would almost certainly have put the province over that limit. 

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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