Canadian Biomass Magazine

B.C. Coastal Biomass Underutilized

February 16, 2012
By Jean Sorensen

Biomass on the coast of British Columbia is still underutilized and needs the push of municipal or provincial government to gain full use, says a Squamish, B.C., contractor.

Biomass on the coast of British Columbia is still underutilized and needs the push of municipal or provincial government to gain full use, says a Squamish, B.C., contractor.

With no chance of a government push in the B.C. Interior, McKay has tried to grind waste wood such as pallets and other debris, but to no avail.


“I can’t compete with the guy who wants to burn or bury wood,” says Dave McKay, president of Triack Resources of Squamish. He has been in the biomass industry for six years and watched the demand for the product fluctuate as logging residuals continue to be burned while building debris is buried in landfills.

McKay maintains that there are two major problems facing the B.C. Coast biomass industry: First, there needs to be an incentive (legislative or otherwise) to cleaning up logging residuals at sites, and secondly, there needs to be greater diversification in the regional demand for biomass use.  


“We are not even using 5% of the [green] residual wood in our area,” says McKay. The Squamish-Whistler corridor area has mainly mature timber and second growth timber stands, both of which yield high portions of biomass content.

While McKay has been harvesting woodlots on the logging side of his business, he says he is “totally flabbergasted” at the amount of fibre left in the wood. “My harvest level is down to a 3.5-inch top,” he says.

But when McKay looks at the fibre that he rakes and grinds, “it is a 2:1 ratio greater than the log fibre harvest.”

McKay believes that if there were more of an initiative to harvest biomass in British Columbia, there could be a significant reduction in the amount of slash burned.


McKay has been keeping track of the residual waste removed from the woodlot, as the hogged material is shipped to the Whistler Composting Facility on a short-term winter contract. The municipally owned operation mixes food scraps from the service industry and bio-solids from sewage treatment plants with wood fibre to make topsoil that is sold to landscapers and into the domestic market. 

He cleans up logging residuals using a Caterpillar 324 loader with a large rake with widely spaced tines. The tines are able to rack the forest floor collecting material, but the spacing permits rocks to fall through. “That saves on the teeth of the grinder,” he says. He also uses the remote-controlled Continental Biomass Industries 6800D unit, a tracked machine that makes it easier to crawl off-road following the loader and also permits it to stay bush-side to load the trucks that must remain on the road, he says. 

“It is really the Cadillac of the industry,” says McKay, adding that it is also able to grind material to different sizes. The composting facility requires a wood fibre material that is stringy and does not pack solid. It therefore allows air to feed the bacterial activity that converts the mixed materials to topsoil.

The grinder and loader take only half an hour to load Triack’s 16-metre walking-floor trailer that holds over 98 cubic metres of material. The trailer is hauled by a Kenworth tri-axle drive tractor, which also hauls the logging bunk.
McKay maintains he is able to take so much debris off the forest floor that the woodlot will meet the BC Forest Service’s standards for fire suppression on site and negate the need to burn slash from logging in the area.

He believes that if forest companies were required through legislation to grind or chip residuals on site, there would be more of a push to find outlets for biomass. “The ministry in B.C., though, is reluctant to pass on any extra costs to the forest industry today,” he said, understandable in today’s economy. But, he argues, there is another side to the cost equation.

The Continental Biomass Industries 6800D unit is a tracked machine that makes it easier to crawl off-road following the loader and also permits it to stay bush-side to load the trucks.


British Columbia’s cost of fighting forest fires, especially those from logging slash and close to developed areas, should be compared to an incentive program that would encourage greater biomass utilization on the Coast. It is an equation that McKay says should be explored as climate change continues to impact the forests and fossil fuel costs continue to rise.  

The Whistler Composite Facility is an example of how a regional push can develop more use from the residual wood that comes from construction, sawmill, demolition and logging industries in the Squamish-Whistler area. It also shows how recycling can use turn waste material into a marketable product.

The facility, owned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMW) and operated by Carney’s Waste Systems, consists of two 70-metre-long controlled Wright Systems tunnels. Material is cured for two weeks to process into compost, resulting in a Class A compost that is either sold as premium compost or mixed with sand and peat for use by the landscaping industry. The composted material has the potential to be dried and cured for an addition 30 to 60 days to produce biofuel for sale to commercial operations, but this is not being done, says Michael Day, RMW’s manager of environmental services.

The grinder and loader take half an hour to load the trailer, which holds more than 98 cubic metres of material.


Day says the RMW has done initial exploratory work in determining whether it would be efficient to utilize the end product in a pellet operation, but has run into two problems. First, in B.C., you cannot burn material that has biosolids in it. Secondly, the end cost of drying and pelletizing the material would be prohibitive in cost compared to more efficient systems, such as heat pumps, that may be installed in homes. However, according to Day, the cost dynamics could shift in five years when the municipality is finished paying for the tunnels.

Day says the topsoil side of the business has been growing; in 2009, 6,550 metric tonnes of treated material was processed, which yielded (when mixed with sand and other materials) 7,034 cubic metres. In 2010, 8,700 metric tonnes of material was generated to yield 10,704 cubic metres of topsoil, which was then sold into the landscaping industry. Day estimates that yields this year could exceed those of 2010.

Although the facility is considered unique, it provides only short-term employment for logging clean-up services such as McKay’s. The facility has its own electric Rawlings wood hog and can generate enough wood fibre from municipal and residual land clearing and pruning for its operation. In winter, however, the frozen material clumps, and the facility’s grinders are not able to handle it, says McKay. But, he can grind the biomass from his forest woodlot to keep the facility going all winter in just a few days.  

McKay’s CBI grinder will soon move to a Richmond landfill, where he will be grinding waste wood for a company that makes topsoil. The work that exists in the Coast regions is fairly spotty, and for operators like McKay, it is not enough to foster growth.

But that was not always the case.

Triack was set to grind forest biomass for Howe Sound Pulp and Paper (HSPP) but the pulp mill’s older boiler suffered problems and was no longer able to handle the grit and dirt until a new unit was installed. In the meantime, it sought cleaner and drier feedstock from mountain pine beetle-damaged mill residuals and construction waste wood from the Lower Mainland.

Triack has now completed a new boiler upgrade, part of a $37-million federal Green Transformation Program funding, that improves the boiler efficiency. But in 2010, HSPP and BC Hydro signed an agreement that allowed HSPP to feed power back into BC Hydro’s grid.

McKay says local suppliers like him lost out, as BC Hydro demanded long-term contracts to guarantee its supply in 2010. He says his company has gone from 30 employees, a barge-loading facility and several trucks down to just a truck, grinder and loader. He can’t sell to companies with contracts to HSPP, as they have an abundance of product. Other existing pulp mills are in an over-supply situation, having either curtailed production or, like Elk Falls in Campell River, closed out.

“The root cause of the problems in the biomass industry today,” says McKay, “is the fault of no one.” Rather, he says, it is the lack of clear definition of where the provincial and municipal governments wish to drive biomass usage and the associated industries. “There is a lot of green wash,” he says, adding that, while intentions are good, they don’t always translate into sustainable solutions and job creation. 

“We have had the highest rate of increase in employment insurance claims in the province,” McKay points out. Over the past decade, the town has lost a few major employers: BC Rail, the Interfor sawmill, Western Forest Product’s Woodfibre mill, a major chemical plant, a bleach plant and various smaller sawmills.

McKay estimates that as many as 2,000 jobs have been lost in the forest industry, leaving the town with only a few remaining mills and logging operations. In fact, a 10% increase in employment insurance claims has been reported, which is the highest in B.C., although some of that increase was attributed to the falloff in construction due to the 2010 Olympic Games.

Two biomass sectors have benefited from a government push, according to McKay. Metro Vancouver, the regional district, made it a priority to keep construction material from the landfill, and B.C.’s government focused on construction meeting a LEED Gold standard, with points earned for recycling waste wood.

The other region benefiting has been the B.C. Interior, where sawmill and bush residuals are transported down to HSPP on the coast. In addition to that, large volumes of mountain pine beetle-damaged wood are being harvested and utilized in pellet mills and cogen facilities. District heating systems have also been established in the B.C. Interior and the University of Northern British Columbia is supplementing its heating system with biomass.

McKay says there is little evidence on the B.C. Coast that the same kind of push will occur. Triack has set up its headquarters at the old Interfor sawmill site, awaiting the completion of a site remediation. McKay has been attempting to grind waste wood such as pallets and other debris, but with no source for the hog fuel and only limited amounts that can go to composting, he’s stymied. His barge-loading ramp, which cost more than $200,000 to build, sits idle.

It raises the question of whether B.C. needs an inquiry into the biomass sector, searching for answers to issues such as municipal waste, biomass collection, utilization and fire suppression.

“Absolutely,” McKay believes. “We should be asking questions such as what is the net gain and who is getting the gain?”

He points out that the shelf life of mountain pine beetle wood is only 17 years, but what is really needed is long-term planning both in the Interior and the Coast to determine how to achieve sustainable utilization of biomass fibre. There also needs to be a hard look at what opportunities exist for smaller contractors compared to the larger operations.

“Otherwise, people like me, who have given it six years, are just not going to be here,” he says.

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