It is touted as a renewable energy source, but there are still challenges facing Bio-Energy.
In the Northern Interior of BC, the major challenge is access to fibre. In the wake of the Mountain Pine Beetle, all who depend on forestry are pressed to have access to the resource. As was witnessed just a week ago, one company (Pinnacle Pellet) has curtailed operations for 9 to 10 months as the fibre source issues are detailed and the facility retooled to handle what may be a change in type of supply.
Bill Strauss is the President and founder of FutureMetrics LLC in Maine in the U.S. and a recognized expert in the wood pellet sector. His company largely ships pellets to power plants which are integrating wood pellets into their fuel sources as a substitute for coal. “One of the major challenges is to get the message out that this ( substituting pellets for coal) is a sustainable solution for moving us from a heavily carbonized power sector to a decarbonized power sector.”
Strauss has issue with those who say burning wood pellets is not “carbon neutral”. He says such positions are usually taken by those whose understanding of “trees” is in their local park “They really don’t have any concept of the scope and scale of the forest products industry.” The bottom line says Strauss is that “The harvest rate cannot exceed the growth rate” and it is a challenge to get people who aren’t well versed in the forest products industry to understand that.
“A tree is merchandised so that the value is gained from every piece at the highest value possible ” says Strauss ” Nobody would sell a saw log to a pellet mill because a pellet mill can’t afford the saw log price.” He says it makes sense for power plants which use coal, to make the switch to pellets, gradually at first, with the aim of being fired 100% by pellets.
Is there enough wood available to proceed with that kind of change over? Strauss says yes. ” I don’t know how many pellets B.C. and Alberta could produce, but it’s quite a bit more than they are producing now.” He says there are many unexploited or unused wood resources “Particularly as you move further north, now maybe the logistics don’t make sense, but there’s plenty more ( fibre).”
He says the decline in the pulp and paper industry, particularly in the south east US, is making more fibre available for possible pellet production. That, combined with a shorter growing time, and trees planted in plantation style farms in the south east U.S., makes the scenario much different than that in BC and Alberta.
According to Strauss one large power plant could consumer a few million tons a year of wood pellets if that plant was fully dependent on wood pellets. He says at the moment, B.C. makes aout 2.2 million tons of wood pellets annually, but doesn’t know if BC would be capable of producing twice that much “The industry has to be constrained by the sustainability constraint. You cannot cross that boundary at all.”
He says the carbon neutrality can only be achieved if the carbon being released by combustion is being captured by the new growth.
Straus will be one of the featured panelists at the Bioenergy conference taking place in Prince George June 15-17th.