New Glasgow to study biomass heat as way to meet climate goals

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A $755,000 feasibility study will be done on switching New Glasgow to  biomass heating. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
A $755,000 feasibility study will be done on switching New Glasgow to biomass heating. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

In what may seem a counter-intuitive solution to meeting its climate goals, New Glasgow will be conducting a feasibility study on burning renewable biomass to heat 90 per cent of the town's buildings.

Natural Resources Canada announced June 6 it would contribute $515,000 toward the $755,000 study.

The fuel would be low-grade wood or wood chips. Promoters of the project estimate it would use three to four per cent of the wood fibre required by the Northern Pulp plant when it was in operation.

The other contributors to the project are the Town of New Glasgow, Torchlight Bioresources, Rathco ENG, the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners and ARCFOR.

New Glasgow Mayor Nancy Dicks said the town has been taking a focused approach to tackling climate change over the past three years.

Reducing Greenhouse gases

"We've made a commitment to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030," Dicks told CBC Information Morning host Portia Clark.

"That's not a lot of time to make big changes but we're working very, very hard at opportunities that allow us to do that."

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

According to Jamie Stephen, managing director of Torchlight Bioresources, using biomass to heat a town is similar to the process of setting up a civic water and wastewater system.

He said a central energy plant generates heat and supplies that heat to a number of other buildings using underground hot water pipes.

Many European cities use the system, Stephen said, noting that in Copenhagen 99.5 per cent of buildings in the city are heated in that way.

Costs and ownership

Speaking on CBC Information Morning, Stephen said the study will be looking at the costs associated with the project and whether the utility will be owned by the municipality or operated as a co-operative by the community.

If started, the system's central heating plant would burn low-quality wood that could not be used by sawmill, he said.

"There's a lot of low-grade wood fibre within Pictou County. Realistically this volume can easily come within 50, maximum 75 kilometres, of New Glasgow.

Noting that there are a lot of "untruths about forest carbon accounting," Stephen said Nova Scotia's forests are a "net sink" meaning that there is more growth in a given year than there are removals.

"People forget that when you remove those trees, it creates space and allows other trees that are remaining to grow healthier, to grow faster, because you've created that space," he said.

"In any given year, there's actually going to be no net release of CO2 because of the additional growth of the remaining trees."

Independent carbon accounting

David Patriquin, a retired Dalhousie University professor of biology who writes the blog Nova Scotia Forest Notes, told Information Morning there needs to be more comprehensive modelling of the area in which the project is supposed to operate.

He said factors like soil conditions need to be considered because removing wood from areas with highly depleted soils could cause ecological damage.

"You really can't make that broad generalization ... what we really need for this is rigorous, independent carbon accounting," Patriquin said. "We can't go on platitudes."

Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, said he was disappointed to hear that the focus will be on cutting wood when there is an oversupply of sawdust, chips and bark in the sawmill sector.

According to Plourde the term "low-grade wood" is an economic term and there is no such thing as a low grade tree.

"Besides the climate crisis, we also have a biodiversity crisis," he told Information Morning.

"It always seems in some branch of the industry that the solution to our degraded forests that have been overcut for decades is to cut more, and that is illogical."

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