Nelson Hydro will hold an open house in the early fall to update the public on the progress of itsplans to heat selected public buildings in Nelson using heat created by burning lumber mill waste.
Fiona Galbraith, a local consultant for Nelson Hydro, says the project at full capacity would use only15 per cent of the available wood waste in an area within 80 km of Nelson. She said the biomassboiler would not be recognizable as an industrial building and would take up an area about the sizeof the tennis courts at LakesidePark. She said it would produce minimal emissions because ofadvanced combustion technology and there would be a maximum of two delivery trucks per day inthe coldest part of the year. Its location has not been decided yet.
The biomass boiler would produce heat, not electricity, heat that would otherwise be produced bynatural gas,which Galbraith says has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than waste wood.
The plan for the district energy system — a local energy source for specific buildings — has been inthe works for several years. In 2014, a consultant hired by Nelson Hydro determined that biomasswould be more cost effective than the other alternatives being considered at the time includinggeothermal.
The buildings under consideration to be heated by the biomass project are city hall, the Civic Centre,theCommunity First Health Co-op and the hospital, although no final decision has been made by theowners of any of these buildings. Last year the indoor soccer building and the curling club wereunder consideration but after an examination of those buildings by a mechanical engineer, Galbraithsaid there may be too much retrofitting required.
The goal is to get memorandums of agreement in place with specific buildings by early next year forconsideration by city council.
“For the first phase you want to put together the best buildings, the core group of buildings thathave the best business case, and we are still in the information collecting stage,” Galbraith said.
Biomass boiler location and size
As for the location of the plant, that won’t be decided until the buildings to be heated by it areidentified, butGalbraith said it will be a small building that does not look industrial, and she cites thebiomass plant in Enderby,pictured above.
Galbraith says her research tells her there is more than enough waste wood in mills in the Nelsonarea.
“We are going to put out an expression of interest to fuel suppliers and get an idea of what iscurrently out there,what can they supply us with, what is the moisture content going to be, what willthe quality be, who is going topay for shipping.”
One of the challenges of biomass energy is to burn wood without putting noxious gases into the air.Some cutting edge biomass plants claim to reduce air pollution to almost nothing, like the BiomassResearch and Development Facility at UBC, which will provide parts of the campus with both heatand electricity.
But on the downside, The Tyee reported in 2014 that 79 per cent of the 107 biomass plants in the UShave been cited for violating air quality standards in the previous five years.
So if, or whether, the Nelson plant would pollute our air may reside in the details of the technologythat is chosen.
“We know people will be concerned about air quality,” Galbraith says. “We have contracted an airquality expert who has worked on a lot of these kinds of projects, and he will be (developing)baseline measurements for Nelson.He will be able to say what the impacts of a district energysystem will be. And we are working with the environment ministry to make sure we are workingwithin their guidelines as well.”
The 2015 business plan for the project, attached below, states there are no emissions standards inBC for biomass boilers and that permits are negotiated on a case by case basis with the provincialenvironment ministry.
The business plan also states “in an ideal combustion environment only carbon dioxide and watervapour would be produced. Biomass boilers aren’t able to achieve an ideal combustionenvironment, but in a well designed combustion system that allows for sufficient time andturbulence within the combustion chamber, other flue gases can be kept to a minimum.”
The American Lung Association has come out against large-scale woodburning to produce energy.
Nelson environmental consultant Michael Jessen, who is a director of the BC Lung Association, toldthe Star, “I would be extremely concerned if this proposed plant added even a whiff of additional airpollution to our community.”
Jessen wonders if wood waste will always be available.
“My definition of sustainable is something you can do forever without exhausting natural resourcesor causing severe ecological damage.
“(This) is a long-term decision and right now I believe we have to be extremely cautious incommitting dollars toward a project that may become a stranded asset in the foreseeable future. Iwould rather see these dollars being spent reducing our need for energy and developing an energy-conserving consciousness in our residents.”
There is an active debate in the energy community worldwide about biomass and its carbonemissions. Some say it is carbon neutral because the burned carbon will be picked up by newlyplanted trees. Others argue that cycle can take up to 100 years and this long carbon payback timedoesn’t address global warming in the shorter term.
There are many details and variables, including whether trees are actually being cut to feed theboilers, how much energy is needed to dry the wood first, how far the wood is transported, and whatfuel the wood would be replacing.
Some say biomass in some circumstances can have a carbon footprint higher than coal because ittakes more fuel to produce the same amount of energy.
Galbraith says in Nelson’s case the comparison to be made is between burning wood and burningthe fuel that currently heats the buildings in question, namely natural gas. She says heating withbiomass instead of natural gas would reduce carbon emissions by 1200 tonnes per year.
“Right now the wood waste is going go get burned or sent to a landfill,” she says. “If it is burned it isstill going into the atmosphere but we are not capturing any of the heat. If it goes into the landfill itwill turn into methane, which is the worst greenhouse gas. We are taking something that wouldalready be going back into the atmosphere and we are creating a useful heat source from it.
Nelson Hydro’s proposed biomass project has a $6-million budget, two-thirds of which would beborrowed through BC’s Municipal Finance Authority with a payback period of 15 years. The restwould come from from grants, and Galbraith says a third of that is already in place with a $700,000contribution from the federal Green Municipal Fund, a program of the Canadian Federation ofMunicipalities.