District Energy Part II: Biomass? Seriously?

Editor’s Note: Be sure to read the follow-up to this story in the 5 February 2020 edition.



The requirement in Nova Scotia is that emissions are reported as total emissions less the portion from biomass. For this reason, the contribution from a biomass plant to the project could be considered essentially carbon neutral. — Ramboll report.

Everything I know about biomass, I know thanks to the work of Linda Pannozzo at the Halifax Examiner.

Back in 2016, as Nova Scotia Power was boasting that it had “set a renewable energy record” and was “moving toward a lower carbon future,” Pannozzo wrote a detailed, incredibly informative article about the problematic role biomass plays in NSP’s plans. Before I go any further, I should probably note that the district energy report discussion of biomass does say:

It has come to the attention of the project team that CBRM may have a potential biomass waste stream that could be utilized as a fuel source.

But having referenced the possibility of using landfill as an energy source, the authors return their focus to and base their calculations on the burning of wood chips, a process Nova Scotia considers “carbon neutral.”

That’s a concept Pannozzo takes issue with:

In 2015 Jamie Simpson penned a report on forest biomass energy policy for East Coast Environmental Law (ECELAW) calling into question the carbon impact of widespread biomass use. The report found that because of time-lags in carbon reabsorption, burning forest biomass for electricity was nowhere near as simple as “burn a tree, grow a tree,” and can result in increased CO2 levels for over a century.

And given that biomass harvesting in Nova Scotia often means “whole-tree removal that…takes everything, trunk, branches, even the roots,” it also has the effect of depleting the nutrient content of our forest soil, not to mention destroying wildlife habitat.

So with all that it mind, note that three of five district energy scenarios considered by Ramboll are based on biomass:

Five scenarios for district heat system, Sydney, NS

Source: District Heating and Cooling at Sydney Harbour

I can actually understand why we might consider using treated wastewater or raw sewage as sources of heat in downtown Sydney, but why would biomass be considered a “local” alternative energy source? The report states:

The assumptions made in this report are that primary fuel for the biomass boiler would be locally sourced wood chips and the moisture content of the fuel would be approximately 55%. The project as described here would require 7100 tons [6400 metric tonnes] biomass per annum.

The authors also know where they can source it:

A requirement for the use of biomass is that there is a local biomass source available. We assume in our study that this biomass source is available based on conversations we have had with forestry experts and an initial desktop study…There is an existing biomass supply chain in Cape Breton to support the Point Tupper Power Plant.

The Point Tupper biomass plant is not the happiest of comparisons — as Pannozzo points out, the plant, which supplies electricity to the NewPage paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, consumes 50 truckloads of wood a day or 730,000 tonnes per year — and it seems the authors of Sydney’s district heating study know this:

The [Point Tupper] power plant has attracted a significant amount of negative commentary in local media and is a point of controversy in Cape Breton. This may impact the perception of a biomass-based district energy system in Sydney. Outreach to local community groups would be needed during the development of such a project to establish the support or lack thereof for such a facility in downtown Sydney.

Are Danes known for understatement? Because reading that line by a Danish consultant, I have to think Danes are known for understatement.

Here’s the kind of “negative commentary” the Point Tupper plant has attracted — this is Dale Prest, ecosystem services specialist with New Brunswick-based Community Forests International, speaking to Pannozzo in 2017:

Prest says that while the argument often made by the biomass and now biofuel industry is that they are providing a market for by-products and residuals like sawdust and bark from sawmills as well as low-grade wood from stand-improvement treatments, this isn’t actually what’s going on:

“We’ve seen every pulp mill and every export facility and every chipping plant make that claim over the years. And in every single case all that has happened is it’s provided an easy dumping ground for us to liquidate our forests at a younger and younger age regardless of the species of trees. They say there were no hardwood saw logs going into the biomass plant in Point Tupper, but if you cut down a 50-year old sugar maple tree that isn’t quite big enough yet to be a sawlog, then you didn’t cut down any sawlogs for the biomass plant. But if had you left it for another 15 or 20 or even 50 years it could have been a veneer log.”


The BC connection

The Danes don’t cite any other Canadian district energy systems as examples in their report, but I ran across two in British Columbia that offer some interesting points of comparison.

The first is in Revelstoke and it was profiled in the Annual Report: Green Municipal Fund Annual 2017-2018 because FCM “funded a feasibility study for both the original project and the expansion, and extended a loan of approximately $1.3 million to help fund construction.”

Weighing the pros and cons of the Revelstoke system is beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to note two things about the $7.8 million project:

  1. It is fueled by wood waste from a local sawmill.
  2. It is owned by the municipality and run by the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation.

Same (almost) goes for the Prince George Downtown Renewable Energy System (in the news recently for continuing to operate despite a cold snap that saw temperatures drop below -40 C). As Prince George senior communications officer Michael Kellet told me in an email:

The City owns all the infrastructure connecting the buildings, and the primary heat comes from Lakeland Mills.

Lakeland owns and operates their boiler, while the City owns the infrastructure that connects to the rest of the system. The peaking/backup plant is owned and operated by the City.

The Prince George system serves eight buildings, each of which pays “capacity charge and an energy charge.” The cost of the connection, said Kellet, “is either added to the capacity charge over the duration of the contract or paid as a lump sum at the beginning.”

Lakeland Mills sawmill, Prince George, BC

Lakeland Mills sawmill, Prince George, BC

Also interesting:

The “plant” components were done by IDL Contracting. The underground distribution and return pipework was done with City forces and a hired welder. Internal building connection components were done by City with involvement with various local contractors.

I don’t believe biomass is “carbon neutral” (I’m not sure the authors of the district energy study believe that), but as David Patriquin has pointed out on his Nova Scotia Forest Notes blog, there is a difference between “genuine by-products from sawmills,” as in these BC examples, and “primary forest biomass,” which is what is used in Point Tupper and is being considered in this district energy study.

There is also a big difference between a district system owned and operated by a municipality, which is not driven to make big returns for shareholders and can reinvest all profits into maintaining and expanding the system, and a district system owned and operated by a private company.

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Many, like former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, think government ownership of anything is simply a disaster waiting to happen.

How did Mike Harris get into this? I’m so glad you asked.



Mike Harris

Mike Harris

Enwave, the private corporation supposedly poised to make a “significant investment” in this project (provided it can make an even more significant profit) began life as the Toronto Hospitals Steam Corporation in 1969. According to Wikipedia, it provided heating services to:

…the Toronto General Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, New Mount Sinai Hospital and Women’s College Hospital.

Later, it added even more hospitals plus the University of Toronto and the Ontario provincial government to its list of customers. In 1980, it became the Toronto District Heating Corporation and acquired the steam utility operated by Toronto Hydro.

Then came Mike Harris and his “Commonsense Revolution.” He privatized the heating company in 1998 and by 2012, its initial shareholders had dwindled to two, the City of Toronto and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), both of which agreed to sell their shares to Brookfield Asset Management.

You know, Brookfield, the company just bought our rail line, another victim of privatization.

Using public funds to help a private company establish what should be a public utility (what Mike Harris would call “commonsense”) is an idea whose time has come…and gone.

Except here in the CBRM where it seems to be alive and well.