March 1, 2013, Quebec - Never mind what you hear from Greenpeace or the NIMBY crowd - Forest bioenergy is a good alternative to fossil fuels in Canada. That was the main message from sustainability experts at the Canadian Wood Pellet Heating Conference.
By Scott Jamieson
Held in Quebec City February 27-March 1, the event was presented by the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and QWEB. An entire session on the first day was dedicated to environmental issues and sustainability, and featured presentations from both Dr. Evelyne Thiffault, forest biomass research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, and Amelie Samuel-St-Laurent, project manager with nature Quebec.
"Forest bioenergy is a great idea," Thiffault stated in explaining its potential role in displacing fossil fuels. "Looking forward, the drivers behind it will only get stronger with time." Still, she noted some challenges as well, including a negative reaction often based on poor forest management in tropical countries around products like palm oil. "There are really good stories about forest bioenergy, and really bad ones. As an industry you need to be sure you are in a position to tell the really good stories, and to differentiate yourself from the scandals we see elsewhere."
Both speakers noted that the carbon cycle makes forest bioenergy a much more palatable energy source than any fossil fuel, but cautioned that not all bioenergy sources or products are equal. The number one pellet fibre supply, mill residues, are "exemplary" as Thiffault explained. So too are construction waste material. Others, such as harvest residues, are also generally excellent supplies if managed with forest sustainability in mind. When it comes to off-species, salvage harvesting, and roundwood, both speakers agreed that the stories can still be very positive compared to fossil fuels, but the carbon debt will take a little longer to repay.
"Context matters," Thiffault explained. "Your fibre mix matters, but so too does the end use. Is it local CHP, is it shipping to the EU? It is all renewable, and they can all work, but some will make a better story than others as far as your footprint."
Thiffault has been involved in extensive trials involving various harvest residual removal levels in different forest types. In most cases their is no negative impact on stand productivity, but she added that in some cases there was, so the application and intensity needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
"There are many safeguards to forest bioenergy development in Canada compared to other parts of the world. First we have forest management regulations that have been recognized as among the most stringent in the world. Bioenergy harvesting must operate in that context. Second, we have the highest certification rate in the world. Finally, we are conducting research on the ground and talking about it at conferences like this. As long as that all continues, I feel confident that the industry is developing properly."
Samuel-St-Laurent challenged producers to maximize the environmental benefits of bioenergy, by optimizing the sources used, streamlining transport, and encourage the use of domestic heat and CHP as much as possible. In the latter case, governments and communities clearly have a key role to play.