The biomass facility at the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus. Photo: Dalhousie

The province has issued a tender to build and operate a half-dozen small-scale biomass plants that will heat government buildings around the province by November of this year.

The plants will run on wood chips supplied by private woodlot owners and are being advertised by the Department of Lands and Forestry as both a response to the shutdown of the Northern Pulp mill and a greener source of energy.

“Replacing imported fossil fuels with a locally sourced renewable resource will create a new market for lower grade forest fibre and reduce the carbon footprint of public buildings,” reads the news release from the department yesterday.

The first six public buildings that will have wood chip boilers are:

Hants East Rural High School, Milford, Hants Co.
Perennia Park Atlantic Centre for Agri-Innovation, Bible Hill
Bridgewater Provincial Court, Bridgewater
Centre of Geographic Sciences, Lawrencetown, Annapolis Co.
Memorial High School, Sydney Mines
Riverview High School, Sydney

“This initiative will help develop new, long-term markets for lower grade wood by replacing imported oil with locally sourced wood chips,” said Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin. “Creating a new market for lower-grade wood will improve the economics of sustainable forest management, leading to healthier forests and a stable market for woodlot owners. ”

The news release goes on to say piloting small-scale wood energy projects for government buildings such as schools and hospitals was one of the recommendations from university president Bill Lahey’s Independent Review of Forest Practices to improve the forest economy. True. The government says the initiative “aligns” with suggestions from the Forestry Transition Team to find new markets to help replace those lost following the closure of the Northern Pulp Mill. Also accurate.

Interestingly, at a forestry forum held at Dalhousie’s Agricultural campus in Truro on June 26, 2019, woodlot owners and contractors were told the province had identified about 100 potential government buildings that could be converted from oil to burn woodchips. At that time, Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin was asked by reporters if the fledgling wood energy project was part of a “Plan B” in case Northern Pulp was to cease production in 2020. Rankin denied that was the case.

“If you look at the scale of the amount of chips Northern Pulp takes, you wouldn’t have enough public buildings to even come close,” he said. “We’re just giving an opportunity for rural woodlot owners to even have a market to sell this product.”

Northern Pulp consumed an estimated 600,000-700,000 tonnes of woodchips a year. In Truro, the majority of the 34 buildings on the Agricultural Campus are heated by a one megawatt (MW) boiler. It burns roughly 20,000 tonnes of woodchips and sawdust each year: three-quarters of which are supplied by an Irving-owned sawmill in the nearby community of Valley. The $28 million biomass boiler at the Agricultural Campus supplies heat and some power to the entire campus.

The news release from Lands and Forestry says the woodchips for public buildings would be provided by woodlot owners, not sawmills. It states the six initial guinea pig buildings would each burn between 300 and 2,000 tonnes of wood chips to generate heat. That’s a big assist for woodlot owners with no place to sell their waste wood residues. But even if all 100 potential government buildings got a new heating plant, each using an estimated 1,000 tonnes of chips (a huge stretch considering the wood energy expert at the Forestry Forum in June suggested 200-300 tonnes per plant would be the average), that puts total consumption at 100,000 tonnes. Six or seven times less than what the pulp mill bought.

Scale is important in the public discussion. Small-scale or baby biomass boilers used for heating are far more environmentally responsible than large-scale biomass boilers used to produce electricity. The boilers being talked about in this project are modelled on ones already in use in government buildings on Prince Edward Island. Minister Rankin claims those ones are 90% efficient.

That contrasts with the 60 MW monster boiler at Port Hawkesbury Paper in Point Tupper, which is only 25-30% efficient. It burns wood to generate steam for the mill and electricity for Nova Scotia Power. The woodchip boiler that runs the Dal campus in Truro is 1 MW compared to the 30 MW boiler at Brooklyn Power that used to be attached to the Bowater Mersey mill before it closed. Brooklyn produces electricity for Nova Scotia Power and is owned by Emera. About 10-12% of the wood cut for WestFor ends up there.

Depending on how wood is harvested, environmentalists argue that large-scale biomass plants that produce electricity are actually bigger carbon emitters than are coal-fired power plants. Small-scale biomass plants that produce heat efficiently for local use is a different proposition. That said, the government’s proposal to provide woodlot owners with alternative markets for low-grade wood is not without critics. The NDP caucus issued a news release yesterday suggesting the P3 model the McNeil Liberals have chosen to build, operate, own, and maintain these heating plants is “risky.”

“While we support the implementation of recommendations from the Lahey report, P3 projects take control out of the public’s hands. When we’re investing in public infrastructure we have to know that decisions will be made with the public’s interest at heart,” said Susan Leblanc, the NDP’s Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal spokesperson. “Using a P3 model could mean that the public will pay for a new heating system, but won’t own it.”

The initial RFP the government issued in August to pre-qualify companies to bid on the heating plants stated the companies would “build, operate, own and maintain” the plants for the long-term. The news release the province issued yesterday did not include the word “own” but used the words “supply” and “operate.” The Examiner has asked Lands and Forestry to please clarify its position on who will own these heating plants.

The five contractors which have been pre-qualified to compete for the first half dozen wood heat projects are:

Wood4heating Canada Inc.
ACFOR Energy Inc.
SustainDriven Inc.
Mira Forestry Development Ltd.
Spec Resources Inc.

The news release says each wood heat system will be constructed in an exterior building positioned for future district heating expansions.

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

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