Is burning biomass the answer?

Jamie Stephen

Jamie Stephen wants to bring district energy systems to Nova Scotia, promising jobs, a market for local resources, and cuts to Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions


ommunities around the province are working on proposals to heat entire towns by burning the truckloads of pulpwood and sawmill scraps that Pictou County’s Northern Pulp mill once gobbled up.

Recent Nova Scotia transplant Jamie Stephen has spent the past several months planting seeds for the idea with municipal councils. So far, New Glasgow, Digby, and Argyle have signed on, applying for government funding for feasibility studies that could launch multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects.

Those communities would just be the beginning, Stephen tells Halifax Magazine from his new home office in Mahone Bay. The bio-energy consultant uprooted from Ottawa with his wife and three young daughters in November because of the opportunity that Northern Pulp’s shutdown and the threat of climate change creates here.

He estimates the province has the potential for roughly $5 billion worth of biomass-fuelled district energy systems eligible for government infrastructure funding that would cover the bulk of the cost. The networks of underground hot water pipes connecting central boilers to buildings are hugely popular in Northern Europe as a source of green energy heating entire cities. But the biomass-fuelled systems haven’t caught on in Canada because of concerns about their efficiency and carbon footprint.

With the right uptake, Nova Scotia could slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and eliminate the need to import coal, natural gas, and propane for heat, says Stephen.

Widespread burning of locally produced, sustainable biomass could become the necessary ingredient for a thriving, ecological forestry industry that’s been missing since Northern Pulp shuttered and stopped buying the sawmill residues and low-grade wood that are forestry byproducts.

Stephen says the energy infrastructure projects would create new fair-paying jobs for boilermakers, pipefitters, and other soon-to-be displaced oil industry workers, instead of retraining them for $20-an-hour positions installing solar panels. The vastly cheaper fuel source could help people suffering from energy poverty.

“Municipal-owned district energy just makes a lot of sense,” says Stephen, founder and managing director of TorchLight Bioresources, with 18 years of experience in consulting and research in the bio-energy field. “It allows you to utilize a local resource and creates a huge number of jobs. Over $1 billion a year could remain in province to be spent on local wood fuel, rather than spent on importing oil, natural gas, and coal.”

His figure doesn’t include the indirect job creation and economic development associated with forestry and new energy infrastructure.

The response from municipalities has been “very positive,” says Stephen, whose clients also include national and provincial governments, First Nations, utilities, airlines, bioenergy producers, and industry associations. “They have recognized the value of district energy and the ability to utilize local, low-carbon fuel to support local economies and employment in the forestry and utility sectors,” he adds

A rejection letter
Infrastructure money from Ottawa and the province could cover 73.3% of the cost for municipality-owned energy systems. The hitch is towns and municipalities lack the financial resources to pay for the required feasibility studies for the energy system-changing infrastructure. Development of a community-wide district energy system, as New Glasgow and Digby are mulling, could be the largest capital projects in each’s history.

Stephen worked with Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners executive director Pat Wiggin to help New Glasgow put together a proposal seeking around $400,000 for a feasibility study.

The province’s $50-million forestry transition fund, set up to help the industry after Northern Pulp’s closure, rejected the request in early February.

“It was disappointing. I think we put together a pretty wicked proposal,” says Wiggin, a Dartmouth native who returned home in 2019 to take the job with the woodland owners after a decade of managing tree-planting projects in northern British Columbia. “One of the reasons we pitched New Glasgow is that, although it’s rural, it’s got a pretty concentrated community. It’s also an area where hundreds of families have been affected by the Northern Pulp closure.”

New Glasgow Mayor Nancy Dicks (left) and sustainability manager Rachel Mitchell.

New Glasgow chief administrative officer Lisa MacDonald and climate change and sustainability manager Rachel Mitchell plan to apply again, with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Nancy Dicks and the rest of town council.

The aim is to understand what would be financially and technically feasible. In its favour, the town has the highest population density outside of Halifax, with 911 people per square kilometre.

“We were looking at the big picture, what would it take to provide heating for the entire town of New Glasgow, including buildings in our downtown core and homes, or what could be done in a phased approach,” says Mitchell, who was hired as New Glasgow’s climate change coordinator in 2019. “It would tell us what we needed, whether it was a large biomass plant or smaller installations in different areas of town … It would have us shovel ready, as they like to say.”

Long-time CAO MacDonald says the town already operates a water utility and runs sewer pipes, so adding a district energy system wouldn’t be a stretch.

“It would provide an alternative to being bound to Nova Scotia Power”—which operates a coal-fired plant nearby in Trenton—”and … better control not only of greenhouse gas emissions, but also price control,” she says. “We want to be doing things that are innovative. They work well in other countries. There’s no reason why they can’t work here. They’ve just not been explored properly.”

The new energy system could also be a significant economic boon for the community hard hit by Northern Pulp’s closure after five decades of operation.

“Climate change is one of the world’s most pressing issues, but also our greatest opportunity,” says Mitchell. “With an NSCC campus in Pictou County, it’s a great opportunity for students to learn about biomass and renewable energy and even jobs for pipefitting. And then buying fuel that’s essentially low-grade wood fibre from our own backyard is incredible.”

Instead of a district energy system, Argyle, with its much lower population density, is taking a different tack.

The municipality is proposing to buy pellet-burning boilers and install them in houses. Its ownership, with backing from the federal and provincial governments, would help offset the roughly $27,000 expense per boiler, a cost-prohibitive upfront price tag for most homeowners. The significant savings of using a much cheaper and greener fuel would pay out over time. The municipality, as owner of the utility, would get a cut.

Stephen told Argyle councillors earlier this year that the municipality could serve as a case study to be replicated in similar communities throughout the province, with wood pellets supplied by Shubenacadie-based Shaw Resources and stored in a large silo.

He said that using wood pellets at home is vastly cheaper and three times as efficient as getting power from either coal or biomass burned at a power plant. “It is the proven approach for carbon reduction,” he adds. “In Europe, they have over 200 million tonnes per year of CO2 reductions. To put that into perspective, Nova Scotia’s total greenhouse gas emissions are 17 million.”

At the end of the presentation, Coun. Calvin d’Entremont quipped, “When do we sign up?”

Bridgewater-based WestFor Management Inc., which the province established in 2016 to boost the efficiency of Crown land forestry management, will lead Digby’s feasibility study application.

Stephen is also pitching to Antigonish. The town, in partnership with St. Francis Xavier University, is racing to be the first net-zero emissions community in Canada powered by 100% renewable energy. It is seeking proposals, due in mid-June, to build an electric district heating system with thermal energy storage and the university as the anchor customer.

“Ultimately, we can’t be using high-value electricity for such a low value product as heat,” Stephen says. “Biomass would have a small, but meaningful impact on the local rural economy and ensure ongoing operating jobs in forest management, forest operations, and lumber production. Wind and solar create very few operating jobs and all components will be imported.”

A plea for money
After the New Glasgow rejection for a sliver of the $50-million forestry transition fund, the forestry sector is working on a letter to send to Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter to underscore the need for fully funded feasibility studies for municipalities.

Neil Jacobsen, a senior policy consultant with Saint John, N.B.-based industry association Atlantica Centre for Energy, has visited biomass-fuelled district energy systems in Denmark.

“Denmark went through a major energy crisis that forced them to adopt and innovate,” he says. “Energy prices are going up here. It’s providing a window of opportunity. When you look at the economics and where we are in terms of climate change and carbon pricing and leveraging resources from within the region, the time has come for Atlantic Canadians to take a really hard look at these opportunities.”

In Nova Scotia, the timber harvest is forecast to be about 40% of its peak in the early 2000s.

“There are differing opinions on Northern Pulp, but one thing is clear: a market for low-grade wood fibre and residues is required for a sustainable forest sector,” says Stephen. “Mixed age stands, achieved through selection harvest, cannot be realized without a market for low-grade wood fibre … If we protect all the forests, all our buildings, furniture and flooring will need to be made out of concrete, steel, and plastic. If we want wood products and want ecological forestry, bioenergy is required.”

Northern Pulp’s annual consumption of chips, pulpwood, and “hog fuel,” which includes bark and other sawmill residues, was 1.2 million tonnes. Stephen estimates New Glasgow would need around 50,000 tonnes a year, Digby about 10,000 tonnes, Antigonish 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes, and Halifax all the fibre previously consumed by Northern Pulp.

The province’s four-million-tonne-a-year harvest difference between 2004 and 2020 is enough to eliminate all heating oil, propane, natural gas, and coal-fired electricity in Nova Scotia, since a large amount of electricity is used for building and hot water heating, he says.

A cautious thumbs up
Notions that burning biomass is inefficient, dirty and leads to clearcutting are the biggest hurdle. 

Using biomass for electricity, as Nova Scotia Power does at its Point Tupper plant in Cape Breton and Brooklyn Energy (owned by the electric utility’s parent Emera Inc.) does in Queens County, counts as green energy. That’s despite a woefully poor efficiency rate of between 30% and 34%.

The technology for bio-energy, like telephones, on the other hand, has grown by leaps and bounds. Generating heat, rather than electricity, is its highest efficiency use at upwards of 85% to 90%, says Stephen. “We’re importing coal to heat buildings at not much more than 30% efficiency through Nova Scotia Power. It would be more efficient to burn the coal at home.”

Many Nova Scotians might not realize when they turn on their new, energy-efficient heat pumps or plug in their electric vehicles that they’re powered more than 60% by coal. Nova Scotia Power is in the midst of a many-decade effort to wean itself off the dirty fossil fuel.

New Premier Iain Rankin is pushing that target 10 years closer, moving the deadline to 2030. The tighter deadline for the transformation is bound to be costly for customers. Even when Muskrat Falls hydroelectric power is fully flowing from Newfoundland and Labrador, fossil fuels will still account for the majority of power generation here.

Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is touted as a renewable, carbon neutral resource. The logic is, while burning biomass releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, the trees and plants that are the source of biomass capture greenhouse gases through photosynthesis while they grow.

Raymond Plourde

Environmentalists, including Ecology Action Centre senior wilderness coordinator Raymond Plourde, scoff at the notion.

“Europe has been subsidizing this massively because it’s considered green and renewable,” says Plourde. “It’s the critical climate accounting error. To count the burning of trees, chips, and pellets as carbon neutral with zero greenhouse gasses is crazy.”

That makes him an outspoken critic of the inefficient Point Tupper and Brooklyn biomass plants. But Plourde says he gives “a cautious thumbs up” to energy efficient district energy systems that would be fueled by burning by-products from sawmills.

“What’s the best thing you could do with these leftovers? Frankly, sweep them up and truck them back to the woods to feed our otherwise very impoverished soils,” he says. “But that’s impractical. Selling into a biomass market that was focused exclusively on supplying district heating plants in municipalities throughout the province, to a certain limit, makes sense.”

He’s not in favour of pulpwood once destined for the province’s mills being repurposed at industrial levels for biomass boilers and wood pellets. The limit should be to sawmill residue and some silviculture thinning from the forest “and hope on Boy Scout honour they’re not grinding up anything else.”

He adds the province should have a “Nova Scotia first” policy and not export wood pellets and chips to feed Europe’s insatiable appetite.

Filling the Northern Pulp gap
Stephen’s argument is that sustainable forestry, as spelled out in the 2018 Lahey report on the province’s forestry practices, requires a market for pulpwood. “This is small diameter, low value, low quality standing timber,” he says. “A lot of timber cannot be milled into lumber. Historically, that timber went to produce pulp and paper. However, with the closure of both Bowater Mersey and Northern Pulp, there is insufficient demand from the pulp and paper sector.”

Northern Pulp shut in early 2020 after government forced it to follow environmental regulations and stop dumping pollutants into Boat Harbour.

Now, B.C. parent company Paper Excellence is trying to reopen it. It’s unclear whether the company’s new proposal will continue to seek approval for a plan to pump treated wastewater into the Northumberland Strait. With the resumption of the mill, pulp products would ship out of the province and new environmental consequences could arise.

Burning biomass for heat might be the safer bet for a viable, sustainable forestry industry.

Either way, a buyer for low-grade wood is needed. Without one, high-grading and clearcutting are the only two logging options.

“High-grading, which is the removal of only sawlogs, is a completely unsustainable forestry practice and is not permitted on Crown land. It decreases the genetic quality of the forest because you a removing all the best trees,” says Stephen. “Clearcutting and leaving trees in the forest to rot is a complete waste of a resource.”

Winning approval for district energy systems and building them could take years. Stephen says steps could be taken sooner to improve efficiency with biomass. Brooklyn Energy has been without a heat customer since the shutdown of Bowater Mersey.

“A use of heat, which is currently being wasted, would dramatically increase the efficiency of the Brooklyn plant without any additional wood fibre consumption,” says Stephen.

He points to a Varberg, Sweden, which ran an 18-km transmission line from the pulp mill to the town, as an example. Making biomass at Brooklyn Energy more viable could be a boon to Greenfield-based Freeman Lumber, the largest sawmill west of Halifax. The multi-generational business warned last year it might go under after losing Northern Pulp as a buyer for its wood chips.

Nova Scotia also has several district energy systems that could be converted to biomass in less than a year. Candidates are the Canadian Forces bases in Halifax and Greenwood and university campuses, including Dalhousie, Acadia, and StFX.  Dal’s Truro campus is already gets heat from a biomass plant.

Stephen says biomass is a good companion to solar panels and wind turbines. While a growing part of Nova Scotia’s green footprint, the two renewable sources lack the capacity and storage capabilities to meet all of province’s energy needs. Bioenergy is already big in the Maritimes. With many homes heated by pellet and wood stoves, it accounts for 73% of all renewable energy in the region, putting it well ahead of solar and wind.

“There are a lot of campaigns that are electrify everything and add wind and solar and batteries and that’s the only solution,” says Stephen. “If you actually step back and look at the numbers, we simply will not reach our green-house goals doing that. You can’t decarbonize using electricity if you have a high carbon grid.”

Nova Scotia can reach its climate-change goals by burning forestry industry by-products in individual wood pellet boilers and district energy systems, he says. “I moved here specifically because I know this is the approach that will work. There’s no example in the world where electricity has been used as the primary means of decarbonizing.”

Even when Northern Pulp was operating, the timber harvest was only about 0.5% of the standing timber. It takes between 40 and 60 years for a tree to grow to maturity in Nova Scotia. That makes removal of 0.5% of timber a 200-year cycle.

“If we actively manage forests, we can remove material for wood products and bioenergy, thereby reducing fossil fuel consumption,” says Stephen. “The alternative to wood buildings is concrete and steel, which is dramatically higher carbon. The alternative to wood furniture is plastic furniture, which is dramatically higher carbon.”

The Charlottetown example
Stephen says Rankin, a former environment minister who got elected on a green energy platform, could meet his target to get off coal, as well as the need for heating oil and propane, simply by bringing forestry harvest levels up to where they were in 2004 when Abercrombie’s Northern Pulp and the South Shore’s Bowater Mersey were operating.

“That’s what makes the most sense to me, rather than just trying to import electricity for heat,” he says. “I hear about wind and solar and electrification and Tesla all of the time, but I don’t hear anything at all about biomass—the thing that is actually driving decarbonization in Europe—which is unfortunate.”

The market penetration for district energy building heat in northern European countries is between 55% and 95%, including a state-of-the-art biomass plant in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen that has an artificial ski slope on its roof.

“In Canada, we’re at 1%,” says Stephen. “This is not some novel idea. It’s been repeated in other countries over and over again. Go to any Nordic country and it isn’t even a discussion about how it should be heated. It’s just like a discussion around water and sewer.”

Nova Scotia has had a district energy system in its backyard, in Charlottetown, P.E.I, for decades. With no natural gas pipelines flowing to the province, the city opted to build its own energy system in 1980 to heat government buildings and a hospital. The plant, now owned by Toronto’s Enwave Energy Corp., has expanded to more than 145 buildings. It burns waste in addition to wood chips, helping reduce the amount of garbage that goes into landfills by 90%.

Burning garbage in district energy systems in Nova Scotia would be viable in bigger centres like Halifax and Sydney. But permitting and social acceptance are obstacles.

“The largest opportunity is on the forestry side because of the closure of the pulp mills and the need for rural jobs,” says Stephen.

Nova Scotia Power isn’t likely to welcome the prospect of new competition. The privately owned company, along with natural gas supplier Heritage Gas Ltd., came out in opposition last year to a plan by Halifax Water to create a district energy system as part of the Cogswell redevelopment in the city’s downtown. The utility wants to heat six giant real-estate developments with its sewage treatment plant.

A public-relations problem
Rankin told Halifax Magazine after he was won the Liberal leadership that he’d like to expand a program he rolled as forestry minister in the fall to use wood chips to heat six public buildings. Those buildings would consume about 5,000 tonnes a year, less than 0.4% of the wood fibre consumed by Northern Pulp.

Stephen spoke with Rankin before the election to discuss the potential for district energy systems. “His primary concern is what people are going to think about burning wood,” says Stephen. “I completely understand where he’s coming from. It’s a communications thing.”

The Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners was awarded a $215,000 grant from Natural Resources Canada’s Forest Innovation Program to examine the social acceptability of active forest management, bioheat, and district energy, a study Stephen is helping out on.

“Looking across country as to where greatest opportunity is to actually shift towards development, which is really where I’m looking to go, Nova Scotia makes the most sense both on the forestry and energy side,” says Stephen.

When it comes to heat, Nova Scotians, with their electric baseboard heaters and oil-fired furnaces, pay some of the highest prices in the country. Heating oil is poised to jump by 60 cents a litre by 2030 as new carbon taxes are imposed.

With the closure of Northern Pulp, the forestry industry lost the buyer of as much as 90% of its wood shavings, bark, and other low-grade wood fibre. The lost market has delivered a blow to sawmills (which, so far, has been masked by a surprise lumber boom amid the COVID-19 pandemic) and the ability of the industry to manage the forests in a stable, ecological manner.

Wiggin is a vehement opponent of clearcutting. He says his main job is to manage forests for the future and make sure Nova Scotia forestry landowners have a way to sell wood chips and other low-grade by-products, whether to a mill or a boiler.

“In a country where more than 80% of energy demand is heat, you’d think all of these light bulbs would be going off,” he says. “You’d think they might say, ‘Hey, maybe we should use what we have and solve these internal problems we have in provinces with the loss of major pulp clients.’” 


This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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