The Innovation Hub of Nova Scotia (branded as the Nova Scotia Innovation Hub) is a non-profit corporation which includes a mix of the largest private companies in the province as well as participation by provincial and federal governments. You have probably never heard of it. Its mission is find and financially assist companies interested in developing new products from under-used, renewable “feedstocks” found in the ocean, forests, farms, and landfills.

The participants in the Innovation Hub include ACOA, Emera, Michelin, Northern Pulp, Port Hawkesbury Paper, Innovacorp, the provincial Departments of Lands and Forestry and Agriculture, and Dalhousie University. Michelin and Port Hawkesbury Paper were also silver sponsors at this week’s Atlantic Biorefinery Conference in Halifax attended by about 100 people.

Bioresources include fish-waste, seaweed extracts, woody biomass, grasses grown as crops, and even garbage that can be transformed into fuels and food. The products are promoted as low-carbon and it’s a timely niche given the concern around climate change.

There is some promising work underway. Nova Scotia-based Sustane Technologies has recently opened a plant in Chester which produces synthetic diesel and biomass pellets from municipal solid waste diverted from landfills. Mara Renewables in Dartmouth (another company founded by John Risley) is working with a micro-algae to produce a fish oil similar to omega-3 that doesn’t actually involve fish. That’s because global warming has made the fishery less sustainable than the plant-life.

Saint Mary’s University plant biologist Kevin Vessey is co-ordinating a $1.2 million project over five years to find a sustainable use for 100,000 hectares of abandoned, overgrown farmland in Nova Scotia. If the ground ever dries up, his team of researchers has identified five sites from Yarmouth to Ingonish where crops of switchgrass, hybrid poplar, and willow will be planted this spring. Next year another five sites will be planted and their yield will be monitored and modelled to convince farmers and investors there could be a business case to justify building a processing facility to generate biofuel. A bonus: these plants actually add carbon to the soil rather than deplete it.

Vessey is a former vice-president of research at SMU. During his presentation he listed several “uncertainties” around another Nova Scotia feedstock. Vessey mentioned “a limited volume of woody biomass, the high costs of wood, changes in forest policy recommended by the Lahey Report, and the lack of data for alternative sources of  bioenergy”.

Vessey receives about 70% of his funding from Agriculture Canada and about $33,000 a year from the Innovation Hub of Nova Scotia. The Hub is also a small investor in Sustane Technologies. The Hub falls under the auspices of Innovacorp, the province’s agency for investing in high-risk, high-reward new companies, although Innovacorp is not a financial contributor.

The Hub is currently operated as a non-profit association. It is financed through contributions from its private-sector partners and $700,000 a year from the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry. It originated in 2015 as a project championed by Allan Eddy, a deputy minister at the Department of Natural Resources. Then it was known as the Forestry Innovation Hub and the thrust was to develop new products from woody biomass. Eddy is still on the Hub’s Board of Directors but has left the provincial government. He’s now the manager of business development for Port Hawkesbury Paper, one of the Hub’s partners.

Given its history, I wondered whether part of the Hub’s agenda might be to find new uses for pulpwood if the Northern Pulp Mill decides to close next year. A “Plan B,” if you will. I’m not the first to suggest this but the consultant hired to promote the Hub, Rod Badcock of Bioapplied Innovation Pathways, threw cold water on that suspicion.

“That was never our mission and of course we are hopeful Northern Pulp will find a way to overcome,” said Badcock. “The Innovation Hub has existed long before that issue and it has been about taking renewable feedstocks and converting them into higher value products. That can be residuals from the forest sector such as sawmill chips, bark, or pulpwood but it’s not only that. It can also be the opportunity to take leftovers from the agricultural sector or waste streams from the ocean and turn them into higher-value products. Some of the forestry opportunities we’re looking at will create a market for lower-value wood which comes out of selection harvests in greater proportion because you are creating stand improvements — and that has a positive carbon benefit.”

At issue is whether biomass from wood harvested in this province — where at least 85% comes from clearcuts — should  be considered  a “renewable” resource at all. Retired Dalhousie University biology professor David Patriquin has publicly expressed concern that the province isn’t providing enough transparency or full carbon accounting for how trees are harvested.

Patriquin says small-sized wood chips and bark leftover from sawmilling would decompose quickly if left on the forest floor. Turning this kind of biomass into biofuel is virtually carbon neutral, he says. (There are issues around soil degradation but let’s leave that aside for now.)

Patriquin notes the larger the piece of wood — picture a trunk that took 30 or 40 years to grow — the more carbon that will be released into the atmosphere when it is burned. It can’t be replaced by a new tree for at least another 30 or 40 years. The time-frame is a problem. Recent warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change suggest the Earth has only 12 years in which to take action to prevent temperatures and sea level from rising beyond earlier projections. Using biomass to generate electricity — as Nova Scotia Power does at Point Tupper and Brooklyn Power — keeps costs down but appears to ignore climate warnings.

I asked consultant Rod Badcock, who represents the NS Innovation Hub, how he could reassure people the biomass used to create new products would not come from lands that were clearcut.

“The customer that wants to buy these products generally requires some level of certification about the sustainability of where the feedstock is coming from,” said Badcock. “And we are fortunate in this province that our forests are largely certified: Port Hawkesbury Paper and Northern Pulp and WestFor operate under forest certification systems so we can trace back and verify the supply chain. We at the Innovation Hub, of course, don’t control that. The relationship will exist between whoever the bio-based business is that gets established and who they purchase their feedstock from.”

Badcock declined to reveal the size of the budget the non-profit Hub has at its disposal. He told the Atlantic Biorefinery conference a consultation among Hub stakeholders turned up a short list of potential projects. The list included finding new products that could be “biorefined” from plastics, the sludge from pulp and paper operations, and leftover rubber from the tire manufacturing process. The Hub wanted something “shovel ready” and its board of directors chose Michelin (yes, one of the well-heeled partners) to work with DivertNS to create new jobs in rural communities recycling worn tires.

Nova Scotia is not the first to this party. For decades  Michelin has been trucking tens of thousands of discarded tires to Minto New Brunswick where a recycler called TRACC (Tire Recycling Atlantic Canada Corp) has been turning rubber into material used in the construction of highways and playgrounds. Another 24,000 tonnes a year of discarded tires go by ship from Nova Scotia to the U.S. state of Georgia, where Michelin recently purchased a company called Lehigh Technologies. Lehigh is central to Michelin’s plan to reduce its carbon footprint around the world. Lehigh uses a patented technology to pulverize tires into a micronized rubber powder. The powder will soon be used in the manufacture of new tires, closing the loop or creating what’s known as a circular economy.

Michelin’s Bridgewater operations manager Bruce Anderson told the conference the long-term goal of the multinational company is to be able to recycle 100% of the tires it makes by the year 2048. Meanwhile, Anderson says one of Michelin’s biggest challenges (and opportunities for local entrepreneurs) is to find companies closer to its factory locations that could recycle materials such as rubber and steel cords. Metals are currently trucked to a company in Ontario.

“Our goal is to accelerate the bioeconomy in our backyard,” said Anderson. That includes Nova Scotia where plants in Granton, Waterville, and Bridgewater employ more than 3,000 people. Each Michelin tire plant has targets set in 2013 to reduce its carbon footprint 40% by the end of next year (2020).  The Bridgewater plant has exceeded that target by reducing its footprint 58%, according to the operations manager.

Anderson says it also uses 10% less energy and emits 40% less carbon, mostly because of a change made to the process of  “curing” or cooking the rubber. Switching from Bunker C oil to compressed natural gas also helped reduce emissions. The change to the processing method also cut water consumption by 30%.

“The Nova Scotia Innovation Hub is committed to driving innovation that has real — and sustainable — economic benefits. The bioresource sector is renewable. It’s innovative. And it’s supporting our province in the areas that need it more — rural communities.”

That’s the lofty but buzzword-y and vague promise from the website of the NS Innovation Hub. Rod Badcock, however, is fairly exacting when he says that if the 20 companies that have expressed interest in developing a bioresource through the Hub all succeed, they will create 259 full-time jobs and generate $105 million in annual revenues. He doesn’t say how he arrives at those numbers. Forgive us if we’re a little skeptical of the claims.

Likewise, forgive us if we’re skeptical of all the carbon and greenhouse claims made by the Innovation Hub. But it’s an interesting story to watch.

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

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