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Bioenergy as Heat Shield?

When the insurance industry starts talking about biomass, you know we’ve made the big time.


August 13, 2012
By Scott Jamieson

When the insurance industry starts talking about biomass, you know we’ve made the big time. In part, that’s just what the Insurance Bureau Of Canada (IBC) is doing in Telling the Weather Story, a report released in June 2012.

Prepared by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, the report looks at climate change trends, and the whole gamut of resulting weather-related risks facing the insurance industry. These include intense rainfall and flooding, extreme storms and prolonged drought. They also include the trend to more frequent wildfires in much of Canada.

Of course, the actual impact of climate change varies from region to region. When it comes to wildfires, however, the expected impact in the next 35 years is predicted to be significant and widespread. The report predicts significantly more wildfires in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and the territories in the coming decades. In BC alone wildfire frequency is expected to increase by 50% between now and 2050. Between now and 2030, the biggest expected increase in wildfire frequency is predicted to be in Ontario, more specifically northwestern Ontario.

The report authors acknowledge that Canada does a great job of suppressing small fires. The concern is the 3% of fires that cannot be controlled. A greater number of fires means a greater number of uncontrolled fires. Moreover, as conditions in some of these regions get drier, winds increase and fuel loadings climb, the percentage of uncontrolled fires may climb, making a very expensive double whammy.

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The IBC’s warnings on wildfires are objective and mercenary. The IBC has no horse in the bioenergy race. The association cares about one thing – the odds and likely cost of property loss.

What they fear is an increase in such tragic and expensive fires as the massive Slave Lake fire ($700-million loss), for example, and the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003 ($210-million loss). Add to that the hundreds of millions that the aforementioned provinces are spending every year in fire suppression, and you’ve got a costly problem that is predicted to get far worse in the coming decades.

The report does not provide solutions, but instead highlights areas of concern so that government, hopefully, can act. There are ways to mitigate many of these risks, the report says, but no cheap ones. One big step is renewed infrastructure investment, in modernized storm drains, for example.

Looked at from that infrastructure perspective, is there an opportunity to start treating stands around vulnerable communities to reduce the impact of wildfires on life and property? True, we can’t currently make money harvesting such stands for biomass utilization. Yet, communities don’t expect to make money installing new storm drainage, trimming trees near power lines or burying utility lines. They are an investment in safety and loss control. Is there a place where renewable community power and wildfire safety meet?


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