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Editorial: A win-win

More communities are seeing the benefits of using biomass fuel for heating


August 26, 2020
By Ellen Cools


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As many members of our industry already know, district energy systems are a renewable, low-carbon way to heat buildings – and even entire cities. Cold countries like Norway and Finland in particular have seen success using these systems. But despite Canada’s abundance of forests and renewable resources, we still rely heavily on natural gas to heat our buildings.

The good news is, some municipalities are starting to recognize the importance of transitioning to a renewable, sustainable way of heating and the role district energy can play. Prince George, B.C., has been leading the way in this field. The city began operating a district energy system, the Downtown Renewable Energy System, in 2012, using wood waste from nearby Lakeland Mills. It provides hot water heating to 11 municipal and provincial buildings – and it’s expanding.

For those critics who think that district energy systems won’t be able to handle Canada’s extremely cold temperatures, think again. In January 2020, the system successfully operated during a record-breaking cold-snap, at -42 C, William Wedel, utilities manager for the City of Prince George, told me. And he believes that we are starting to see a change when it comes to Canada’s approach to waste management and district energy systems that use renewable fuel sources.

Other cities in B.C., including Williams Lake and Quesnel, are starting to see the potential of district energy. These systems are optimal for locations that have mills or forestry resources nearby, and with so many sawmills shutting down in the past year, they present an opportunity to offset job losses and boost local economies.

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Speaking to William gave me hope that we will soon start to see more systems like the Prince George Downtown Renewable Energy System coming online, helping the Canadian bioeconomy grow, while lowering greenhouse gas emissions and heating costs. Really, it’s a win-win. You can read more about Prince George’s district energy system here.

It’s not just cities like Prince George that are seeing the benefits of using wood waste for heating. In January this year, CanmetENERGY, part of Natural Resources Canada, interviewed nine rural and remote communities that have installed biomass heating or combined heat and power (CHP) systems to learn about their experiences. These pioneering communities are leading the way when it comes to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and, in turn, reducing reliance on provincial hydro companies. Read more about the challenges they have overcome and the factors for their success here.

Of course, there are still multiple barriers to the widespread adoption of heating using biomass fuels, including the need to increase public awareness of its benefits and the cost of these systems. But as Canada emerges from the first wave of COVID-19 and turns its focus to renewable economic recovery, I expect we’ll see more of these heating projects coming online in years to come.