How big is the biomass industry in Nova Scotia?
It’s big and getting bigger with both large-scale domestic consumption and large-scale biomass exports. Specifically:
The largest biomass-burning facility in Nova Scotia is the 60 megawatt generator in Port Hawkesbury, owned by Nova Scotia Power and located next to (and attached to) the Port Hawkesbury paper mill. It consumes up to 650,000 green tonnes of woodchips a year or roughly 100 tonnes per hour. As many as 50 tractor trailer trucks a day deliver up to 2000 tonnes of biomass every day. As noted on the Nova Scotia Power website their wood biomass fuel is “chipped and delivered to the plant directly from the forest” – so not so-called “waste wood”.
The second largest is the 30 megawatt Brooklyn Energy plant in Liverpool owned by Nova Scotia Power’s parent company Emera which sells the electricity generated to Nova Scotia Power. At half the size of the Port Hawkesbury plant it uses about half as much wood – roughly 325,000 green tonnes per year.
The third big biomass generator is owned by Northern Pulp in Pictou and is used exclusively to provide electricity to their pulp mill in order to avoid having to buy more expensive electricity from Nova Scotia Power. They harvest and chip the trees themselves – primarily from clearcutting on Crown lands. It is not known exactly how big it is or how much wood it consumes but a reasonable guestimate it is at least as big at the Brooklyn Energy Plant at 30 megawatts and 325,000 green tonnes per year (maybe more). Although the mill is currently idled the company says it will resume operations later this year
In addition to these large biomass facilities there are several smaller ones such as the 3.7 megawatt biomass plant at the old Hefler sawmill in Lower Sackville.
How much forest biomass is being harvested in Nova Scotia?
No one knows for sure because there is no reporting on this. But it is well over one million tonnes per year and perhaps as high as 1.5 million tonnes for domestic electricity alone. Biomass exports in the form of raw wood chips and compressed pellets are estimated to be about 400,000 tonnes per year. So a reasonable guestimate of total biomass produced in Nova Scotia would be around 2 million tonnes a year.
How is it being harvested?
Almost all of it comes from purpose-specific clearcutting – including young, mixed-wood stands and in some cases even rare old growth forest stands. A growing percentage is also coming from sawmill residuals (chips, bark & sawdust).
Isn’t it just “waste wood”?
The public has been told repeatedly that large pulp mills and Nova Scotia Power will simply be burning “waste wood” to produce this wonderful new “green energy”. Sounds logical, right? How could burning wood that is just going to waste be anything but good? The problem is: there is no “waste” wood that is not already being used. In the last twenty years the traditional forestry industries have adapted to tight times by investing in every possible efficiency – including finding marketable uses for the formerly discarded bark, chips and sawdust produced in the conventional milling processes. Pulp, biomass and sawmill operations have also become tightly integrated, buying, selling and using every scrap of wood refuse they produce. So there is, in fact, no wood being wasted at all. Biomass for electricity is almost completely coming from purpose-specific harvesting of large volumes of trees. Harvesting well over a million new of tons of trees a year is the equivalent of adding another pulp mill to the province and clearcutting a 1 km-wide strip across the province from Yarmouth to Sydney every 4 years.
Is forest biomass being exported out of Nova Scotia?
Yes. A company called Great Northern Timber sells bulk container shiploads of raw chipped trees to foreign customers out of Sheet Harbour. The company recently bought the old MacTara pellet mill in Middle Musquodoboit in a bankruptcy sale and are now also producing shiploads of compressed wood pellets for the European biomass energy market. See: http://www.greatnortherntimber.com/pellet-mill-upper-musquodoboit-nova-scotia/ They cut on private and Crown land and are part of the Westfor Consortium with a sizable timber allotment from Crown (public) lands.
Isn’t there supposed to be a cap on biomass harvesting in Nova Scotia?
Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy, in 2010, set a cap of 350,000 dry tonnes in 2011 (roughly equivalent to 700,000 green tonnes) of additional (new) forest harvest of standing trees per year for biomass electricity that would qualify as renewable under the Renewable Electricity Regulations. The cap has never been enforced.
Are there any plans for expanding the biomass industry in Nova Scotia?
Yes, there is no shortage of eager-eyed businessmen promoting more biomass use from our forest. The provincial government has been supporting the creation of a “bioenergy” Industry including “bio-fuels” and have given a company called Cellufuel approximately $5 million dollars in grants and loans to develop the technology in the old Bowater Mill site which they/we bought and re-named “ReNova Scotia Bioenergy Inc”. The senior executives all come from the pulp and paper industry. If they are successful they plan to build a $50 million commercial bio-refinery using large volumes of trees as feedstock.
There have also been at least two new, large-scale biomass schemes proposed and promoted in the last couple of years in Nova Scotia. The first involves a Ukrainian/British businessman of dubious reputation promoting a giant pellet mill to feed European electricity plants. The second, more recent proposal comes from a Canadian bioenergy consultant from Ontario who is aggressively promoting large-scale district heating plants that would heat entire towns throughout the province by burning forest biomass, primarily sourced from cutting down a whole lot more trees.
Nova Scotia’s oldest and largest environmental NGO, Ecology Action Centre, strongly opposes creating more large-scale consumptive demand for wood biomass.
Is biomass a “value added” product?
No. Forest biomass is the least valuable “wood product” ever produced in Nova Scotia. Cutting and chipping trees adds no value and in fact, often uses trees that could be used for higher value products or immature stands that are harvested well before their prime. It is also the most expensive form of electricity on our power bills. Nova Scotians are subsidizing forest biomass burning through higher electricity bills. $208 million for the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant will be passed directly on to Nova Scotia Power customers. And the rate paid for producers of biomass energy under the feed-in tariff program is 12% higher than wind energy – again, an additional expense added directly to customers’ electricity bills.
What’s the impact on our forests?
Through decades and centuries of overexploitation, Nova Scotia’s forests have already been severally degraded in terms of the abundance, diversity and health of both trees and wildlife. We have less than 1% old growth forest left in Nova Scotia, an ever-growing list of endangered species and ever-shrinking fragments of habitat for wild species to survive in. How much more can the wildlife species that are trying to survive in what’s left of them take? Domestic biomass has added the equivalent of a big new pulp mill in terms of new consumptive pressure on our forests and has driven clearcutting practices to new lows. Exports of so called “fuel wood” to the UK and Europe are adding more consumptive pressure on our forests when what they need is a rest and time to grow and to sequester carbon and provide habitat for wildlife.
What can be done about this?
The whole thing is being driven by bad policy that considers biomass “renewable” and “carbon neutral”. The provincial government needs to 1) remove forest biomass from the list of approved generation sources in the Renewable Electricity Regulations and 2) Count the carbon emissions released by biomass and 3) ban exports of forest biomass from Nova Scotia. Our relatively small landmass and already highly-stressed forests cannot and should not be used to feed the growing international biomass demand.
How did this happen? (Background)
Nova Scotia’s NDP government commissioned Dr. David Wheeler, past Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University, to provide a strategy to reach the province’s goal of 25% renewable energy by 2015.
In 2009, Professors Michelle Adams and David Wheeler (yes, the same David Wheeler who led the orovincial fracking review) steered the stakeholder consultation process for a Renewable Energy Strategy for Nova Scotia to provide options to help meet the province’s renewable energy targets.
Wheeler and Adams ultimately gave a highly conditional green light to forest biomass use, but noted that “more discussion regarding forestry management standards and the assurance of ecological integrity of Nova Scotia’s forests is clearly required.”
They were presented with a slew of evidence pointing to failures in the regulatory regimen and potential negative impacts from biomass harvesting.
They were clear that the case for forest biomass for energy production was “contingent on the ability of stakeholders to come together in a consensual way to identify and define sustainable harvesting practices” and called on DNR to convene such a conversation before moving ahead with any biomass projects.
That never happened.
Wheeler and Adams also directed DNR “to develop regulations outlining the highest possible standards expected for sustainable forestry practices as it applies to biomass harvesting for the purpose of energy generation — as quickly as possible” in order to “provide guarantees on ecological integrity.”
No such standards were ever created.
The report similarly noted “proponents of forest biomass-based electricity generation will need to implement procurement policies that adhere to the highest possible certification standards (e.g. FSC or a commensurate system), subjecting the actors in their supply chain to appropriate auditing and assurance systems in order to ensure the proponents’ compliance.” They further recommended “a premium of around five per cent of the payments identified for enhanced forest stewardship to meet relevant standards and audit systems.”
To this day, no such system is in place.
The Nova Scotia government approved it anyway.
Similarly, the steering panel for the Natural Resources Strategy, consisting of retired chief justice Constance Glube, Joe Marshall, executive director of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and Allan Shaw, chairman of The Shaw Group, warned in 2010 that “there is ample evidence that our forests are already under considerable stress” and that “Nova Scotia does not have the wood capacity for biomass use to make much of a difference.” The panel strongly urged the government to “exercise great caution in the use of biomass for power generation.”
They also said:
“Unless there is change, Nova Scotia’s natural resources will continue to be destroyed.”