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Arctic bioenergy: Study finds wood-based heat and power can benefit the North

For Canada’s northern and remote communities, bioenergy represents an opportunity not only for clean, renewable energy, but also for more independence and revenue, according to a new study from Natural Resources Canada.

August 5, 2022  By Ellen Cools


Researchers analyzing the forest near Fort McPherson, N.W.T., with the help of community members. Photo by Martin Blank, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre.

As more and more governments look to renewable resources to help combat climate change and reach net-zero emissions, researchers continue to explore the potential benefits of wood-based bioenergy. 

For Canada’s northern and remote communities, which have long relied on imported fossil fuels for heat and power, bioenergy represents an opportunity not only for clean, renewable energy, but also for more community leadership. 

A new study from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) – Greenhouse gas mitigation potential of replacing diesel fuel with wood-based bioenergy in an arctic Indigenous community: A pilot study in Fort McPherson, Canada, by Jennifer Buss, Nicolas Mansuy, Jérôme Laganière, and Daniel Persson – confirms that replacing diesel fuel with biomass such as wood pellets and local chips can help mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in northern remote communities while also providing socioeconomic benefits. 

The study is part of an ongoing project that Mansuy and his colleagues began in 2019, and will continue for another two years. The project examines the opportunities and challenges for community-based bioenergy development in northern Indigenous communities. 

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The communities they are working with have received funding from the federal government’s Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities: BioHeat, Demonstration and Deployment Program. Some of them have already installed boilers and are transitioning to bioenergy, while others are looking at solutions for steady supply of biomass. 

“There is a lot of interest for renewables energy globally right now and bioenergy can play a critical role, especially in Canada where we have so much biomass available,” Mansuy says. “But, we realize for remote communities in the North, it’s more challenging because of the complexity of the supply chain and the long transport distances.” 

Mitigating GHGs with bioenergy

Mansuy and his colleagues’ recent study specifically examined the GHG mitigation potential of wood-based bioenergy in northern remote communities. A life cycle assessment-based model was developed for Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to estimate potential GHG emission reductions achieved by switching from diesel generators to wood-based bioenergy. 

Mansuy and his colleagues chose Fort McPherson as the pilot project for two reasons: First, the community has a significant amount of local biomass available. NRCan was able to collaborate with the community as well as the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and FPInnovations. 

Secondly, the community is 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, making Fort McPherson among the most extreme locations in Canada for bioenergy development, Mansuy says.

“The idea was that if we see some success here in terms of GHG mitigation, that means we can probably have more GHG mitigation for communities in the south.” 

The community also has a growing energy demand – using 310,000 GJ annually – and high energy costs. Fort McPherson’s goal is to replace its diesel generators with a combined heat and power (CHP) wood-based bioenergy system. In 2013, the community received an 85-kW boiler, which it used to provide heat for two buildings. The community also has a wood marshalling yard and tent shelter to store and process biomass. 

As part of the study, the researchers tested using wood chips from willow locally harvested near Fort McPherson as well as trucking wood pellets from La Crete Sawmills in La Crete, Alta., nearly 3,000 km from the community. 

Despite being above the Arctic Circle, Fort McPherson has a forested area next to the Peel River, part of the Gwich’in Settlement Area. “Despite the latitude, the forest here seems quite productive, but we are still conducting surveys to assess its long-term potential and sustainability,” Mansuy says. 

The study also accounted for transportation distances, biomass boiler efficiency and emission factors, including the fuel used to transport the wood pellets. The transportation distance for the local supply chain to the biomass boiler was just 3.3 kilometres, although the researchers also modelled the GHG emissions savings based on a distance of 50 kilometres to account for future harvesting operations further from Fort McPherson. The transportation distance for the imported La Crete pellets is 2,900 kilometres. 

The researchers ultimately found that replacing diesel fuel with wood-based bioenergy resulted in GHG emissions savings of 26,623 to 32,155 tonnes of CO2 per year over 100 years using local willow wood chips, and savings of 11,331 to 29,741 tonnes of CO2 with imported wood pellets. 

Based on this model, Fort McPherson could see GHG benefits using local wood chips within zero to 20 years. With imported wood pellets, the community would see GHG benefits within two years (with a boiler conversion efficiency of 90 per cent) to 37 years (with an efficiency of 65 per cent). The range in numbers is based on the conversion efficiency of the biomass boiler, either at 90 per cent or 65 per cent.

Investment potential

These findings have several implications for Fort McPherson because of the community’s immediate need to create local jobs and revenue, Mansuy says.

“By investing in the local supply chain, you can create jobs and involve the people, create revenue locally, and you have more control over the whole project. This is very important, especially for the Indigenous leadership.” 

But, to ensure remote, northern communities can take advantage of the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of bioenergy, some challenges will need to be addressed. 

Developing sustainable practices is key to minimizing the impacts on the ecosystem and securing sustainable biomass supply chains. In addition, having boilers that can accept different types of feedstock, for example, will help provide greater flexibility for communities. It’s also important to have good quality feedstock so communities don’t need to spend time and money cleaning the biomass before it goes into the boiler, Mansuy says. 

Canada’s pellet market

Canada has not enjoyed a strong domestic market for wood pellets and wood chips. Mansuy and his colleagues are also working to understand the business ecosystem and the issues the industry faces. 

“I had a Canadian company call me, they said they do a lot of business in the U.S., but asked why not in Canada? We need to understand why, and what are the barriers. Is it because of the lack of investment, the complexity of the supply chains, the competition with fossil fuels or other renewables?” Mansuy asks. “Right now, we are conducting interviews with companies to hear their perspectives about that.” 

Logistical infrastructure challenges along the supply chain also need to be addressed. “Sometimes we hear that bioenergy is simple because, this is Canada, we have forests everywhere, it’s just a matter of shipping biomass. But, if we’re talking about the North its different. When you need to truck for thousands of kilometres on gravel or ice roads, you have to make sure you can ship the feedstock when needed, cost effectively, in every season. 

“In the previous study, we asked communities about the main barriers they face, and the lack of infrastructure was one of them,” he continues. “The climate in the North is also really harsh on infrastructure, but also the logistics, for example, to store the pellets or chips because you need to maintain a constant moisture level so you need the proper equipment. All this must be taken into account at the beginning of the project development.” 

To address some of these issues, NRCan is looking at developing guidelines for investing in a biomass system. The guidelines will include a checklist to ensure they have access to biomass and the supply chain is viable economically and sustainable for the long-term, Mansuy explains. “And we want to combine this with Indigenous knowledge and local expertise as well, just to make sure that the bioenergy project is integrated with the existing values and uses and doesn’t create more pressure on the landscape. 

“It’s very important that the communities have the say and the vision of how the landscape is managed for different values, including biomass harvesting and bioenergy.”


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