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Biomass Shotgun Solutions


December 2, 2011
By Scott Jamieson


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Any decent PR hack knows that if you want to lead people to a specific conclusion, you must phrase your question accordingly.

Any decent PR hack knows that if you want to lead people to a specific conclusion, you must phrase your question accordingly. Hence the widespread Greenpeace “Biomess” report on the dangers of pursuing bioenergy in Canada.

Would you rather mow down Canada’s forests to solve our near universal addiction to fossil fuels, or live in a world where the sun always shines, a warm wind always blows and otherwise imperfect people change their power consumption habits overnight without far-reaching consequences?

Only an idiot would choose the former. Yet, only an idiot or charlatan would ask the question in the first place.

Try this question instead: Given our unhealthy energy diet, the limitations of all current fossil fuel alternatives and a complex world full of predictably stubborn consumers, how do we move to a more sustainable energy future?

For starters, we need to thrive in complexity. The current and relatively black-and-white energy mix (fossil and hydro) will be replaced by a complicated kaleidoscope of fossil and hydro, but also geothermal, wind, solar, tidal, conservation, and yes, biomass.

In brief, forget the silver bullet; look for buckshot. And as a starting point, I’d also add don’t look for perfection, but for a series of steps from different arenas instead. And once combined, these steps will help take us to a better energy mix.

Despite one of Greenpeace’s wildest claims – that tapping into bioenergy means suddenly doubling harvest levels and stripping Canada of its forests without public debate – biomass should be a significant part of that mix. In reality, the move to biomass has been painfully slow, and still moves at a crawl. There is more action now than at any time in the past, but projects are still generally small and slow to launch. Shrill as Greenpeace’s cries are, the only power-generation conversion of any scale was to be OPG in Ontario. And this utility is converting but one plant.

Yet given the capital and markets, could we double our harvest? According to the 2010 State of Canada’s Forest report, Canada’s sustainable level of harvest is almost twice what it is currently. In other words, our current reduced harvest levels allow for considerable growth, all using public policy and sustainability guidelines that have long been in place.

Since my glasses are not as rosy as Greenpeace’s, I don’t believe that will happen. Reality is harsh, and much of that fibre is uneconomical even as sawn timber. Given the economics of bioenergy, very little of it will ever be used just to make power. If we’re innovative, we’ll make a little buckshot, but no silver bullet and no mess.


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