The biomass boiler near Port Hawkesbury consumed 530,000 tonnes of woody biomass last year, with nearly a quarter of that imported from outside the province, CBC has learned.

The total consumed by the plant in 2014 amounts to about 50 large pulp trucks a day. It includes low-grade hardwood, bark and wood chips.

The numbers are contained in a summary report prepared for the province by Nova Scotia Power, which owns the boiler.

Last year was the first full year of operation for the biomass boiler, which was approved to provide cheap electricity to Port Hawkesbury Paper and help Nova Scotia Power meet legislated renewable energy targets of 25 per cent in 2015.

Nova Scotia Power spokesperson David Rodenhiser says the company went outside the province to buy 23 per cent of its total biomass when it was cheaper.

“We’ve imported some secondary biomass, largely sawmill bark, from Quebec,” he says. “And there’s also been some primary biomass that we’ve purchased from lands that were being cleared for agricultural purposes in New Brunswick.”

Primary biomass is largely wood, while secondary biomass is usually the chips and bark from sawmills.

Matt Miller of the Ecology Action Center has been critical of the boiler from the start, calling it an unwise use of a forest that should be providing higher value products. He says importing biomass suggests the power company is facing some of the same supply issues competing for fibre as sawmills and even pulp mills.

“We’ve seen this project drive harvesting practices to a new low,” Miller says. “It’s having an impact on the value-added hardwood industry, which is a much wiser use for jobs per unit of wood used.

“There have been increases in clear cutting and we should be looking at options to decommission the plant once Muskrat Falls comes online.”

Hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls is due by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Power is on track to hit its 25 per cent renewable energy target for this year and exceed it once the South Canoe wind project, near New Ross, comes online.

Difficulty finding hardwood

The biomass plant in Port Hawkesbury generates about three percent of the province’s electricity.

Sawmills and flooring manufacturers that are experiencing difficulty finding enough hardwood question to what extent Port HawkesburyPaper and private contractors are working to separate it from the truckloads of biomass heading to the boiler.

The Department of Natural Resources confirms 43 percent of the hardwood on Crown lands licensed to Port Hawkesbury Paper wound up being used for biomass last year.

And there’s plenty of disagreement among the department, sawmills and pulp and paper mills over whether the province is properly identifying the higher value hardwood before cutting goes ahead.

Natural Resources Minister Zack Churchill says he’s satisfied hardwood cut from Crown land is not being turned into biomass.

“We know that’s not happening from Crown land,” he says. “It is monitored for how much hardwood sawlogs are going into the biomass plant and all the inspections we have done to date indicate a minimal amount of sawlogs going to the biomass plant.”

“We don’t control what comes off private lands. Seventy to 80 per cent comes off private lands. If you look at the economics of it, I don’t know why people would be selling hardwood sawlogs at a lower value when there is a higher value outlet out there with other sawmills.”

Churchill went on to blame “market forces” such as the price drop after the recession of 2008 for the closure of half the province’s sawmills in the last ten years.