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Environmentalists with the Ecology Action Centre are calling on the provincial government to “finish the job it started” and shut down the Port Hawkesbury biomass boiler by 2018, when hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls is supposed to arrive. Last week Energy Minister Michel Samson changed a provincial regulation that had required the 60 MW biomass boiler to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet mandated targets for electricity generated from “green” sources.

Those targets have now been met. With 28,000 signatures on a petition calling on the McNeil government to stop clearcutting forests to produce electricity that costs ratepayers an estimated $7-million a year more than other renewable fuels, the government shifted control of the boiler (and the problem) to Nova Scotia Power.

“This is a good and necessary first step in addressing the issue of forest biomass,” says EAC Wilderness co-ordinator Raymond Plourde. “There is nothing environmentally friendly about cutting down and burning our forests to generate highly expensive and terribly inefficient electricity. Primary harvesting for forest biomass does nothing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, is adding significant damage to our already stressed forest ecosystems, and it needs to be dialed way back.”

How much or how little the biomass boiler will run in the future is now up to Nova Scotia Power and, by extension, so is how many cubic meters or tonnes of forest get chipped to produce heat and light. The Port Hawkesbury boiler consumes a jaw-dropping 50 truckloads of wood a day and six per cent of all the wood cut in the province each year.  The utility says how often the boiler will run will change “significantly” but it isn’t providing specifics.

“The plant is going to continue to operate as part of our steam sales agreement with Port Hawkesbury Paper and remain ‘ready to run’ to generate electricity for the grid only when it is cost effective to do,” according to Bev Ware, a spokesperson for NS Power.

“Biomass accounted for 2.8 per cent of generation in 2014 and we had forecast it would account for about 3.2 per cent of generation in 2020,” said Ware. “We need to do some work to calculate the expected reduction. The announcement will significantly reduce the amount of biomass being harvested for the plant.”

Most wood in the province is cut for pulp or lumber. But since the boiler began operating in July 2013, the amount of wood used to produce electricity in Nova Scotia or abroad — including biomass chips and softwood pellets — has jumped from 6.3 per cent in 2013 to 11.1 per cent in 2014.

Excluding sales of firewood, wood or “primary biomass” now accounts for 11 per cent of the annual harvest. That’s according to Jon Porter, executive director with Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, who walked the Halifax Examiner through several opaque categories in the 2014 NS Registry of Buyers Guide to determine that percentage. The Buyer’s Guide is the document the department says it relies on to manage forests sustainably. Although every buyer of wood is required to report the amount it buys each year, company names such as Great Northern Timber and Wagner’s are not attached to purchases for reasons the department deems “commercially sensitive.”

Porter confirms the 11 per cent includes wood cut to supply the 60MW biomass boiler at Port Hawkesbury, the 30 MW biomass facility in Brooklyn owned by Emera Energy, as well as biomass chips exported by Great Northern and softwood pellets exported by Scotia Atlantic Biomass in Upper Musquodoboit. In 2014,  the Dept of Natural Resources says that totaled 406,786 cubic meters of wood used for energy.

The pellet plant exported 67,000 tonnes of pellets for use in industrial boilers in Europe last year. Scotia Atlantic CEO Julie Millington says about half the raw material for pellets is sawdust, bark, and chips from sawmills — what’s referred to as ‘’secondary biomass.”

“There’s a misperception that forests are being cut down for biomass,” says Millington. “You don’t go cutting for biomass. We get our material from sawmills like JD Irving and mills like Northern Pulp. We take the garbage left behind and what’s no good for anything else.”

Millington says the Nova Scotia plant with 18 employees would consider a second shift if it could find more material. She says last year the plant was forced to buy low quality wood as raw material for pellet production because the mill couldn’t obtain enough shavings and secondary biomass. The ratio of primary to secondary biomass was about 50/50, she said.

That’s the kind of information that sets alarm bells ringing for Matt Miller, forestry coordinator for the Ecology Action Center. Miller has seen scientific studies that show removing all branches and residue  (secondary biomass) from the forest floor can speed up the release of carbon from the soil, as well as slow down the rate at which trees regenerate, if the cutting is too intense.

“To address the threat that biomass harvesting poses to the health of Nova Scotia’s forests, we need to improve the regulatory framework for forest harvesting to significantly reduce clearcutting and eliminate harvesting of tree tops and branches for biomass,” says Miller.

The Ecology Action Coalition is also calling on the provincial government to “restrict” the cutting of wood used to generate electricity inside Nova Scotia, and, to “stop the export” of secondary biomass (chips and pellets) to fuel power plants abroad.

Millington says she wants to develop a local market for the industrial pellets but so far Cape Breton University is the only customer.

The Department of Natural Resources could not provide an estimate of how many cubic meters of secondary biomass was used to produce electricity in 2014. Although companies are required to report how much wood or primary biomass they buy, no information is required for buying residual or secondary biomass.  Jon Porter says that would require a rule change and there are now discussions underway within the department as a result of more questions from the public.

Porter says information on how much wood was cut in 2015 should be available this summer.

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Jennifer Henderson

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

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  1. So the plant is still going to run for a vast majority of the year as a steam generator for PHP. As I see it, removing the 24/7 stipulation was kind of a smoke and mirrors move by the government to make sheeple happy. It means nothing, but looks great. A classic McNeil maneuver.

    Questions need to be asked. Somebody should have easy answers from log sheets as to how much fuel is required to run the boiler for PHP steam only, and how much extra fuel was used for power generation. Then start asking about the future composition of that *mandatory* PHP fuel load. This will help put more pieces into the puzzle.