Editorial: Heating north of 60
Sept. 28, 2017 - We know the majority of Canadians live within 160 kilometres of the U.S. border. I’ve read various stats, most of which peg the number between 70 and 90 per cent. And less than one per cent of the population lives in Canada’s northern territories, which represent about 40 per cent of the country’s land mass.
A few years ago I lived and worked in Fort Smith, N.W.T. – a town of 2,500 a stone’s throw above the 60th parallel. As with almost all northern communities, home heating options in Fort Smith are limited to oil, electricity or wood. Without the luxury of natural gas line and faced with expensive heating oil, many there opt for wood, the laborious but cheapest option.
The government of the Northwest Territories has been transitioning community buildings in Yellowknife to wood pellets for years. In a 2016 report the government of the Northwest Territories estimated that after the installation of new boilers in 2017, biomass will contribute 24 per cent of the total space heating requirements for the territory. That’s an impressive number for sure.
For the N.W.T. biomass is the affordable heating option, but what about the climate benefits? Two researchers with the USDA Forest Services undertook a study recently that compared the environmental impact of heating fuels in southwest Alaska: heating oil, cord wood and wood pellets. Their research takes into account the entire lifecycle of each fuel.
In all test scenarios, the global warming impact was lower when the solution involved wood pellets. Impact was at its lowest when wood pellets were produced and consumed locally in the rural areas. These results led the researchers to suggest that many rural communities across North America would benefit from local production and consumption of wood pellets. We’ve published their research report here.
But there are some challenges, the researchers note. Alaska has limited infrastructure needed to harvest, process and dry wood fibre. At the moment there are no commercial wood pellet mills in Alaska. The territories face the same challenges.
It goes without saying that this report is good news for Canada’s pellet producers in the domestic market. In the N.W.T. alone 24 per cent of the territory’s market share is nothing to sneeze at.
Beyond that, the research confirms what many consultants and scientists have been saying for years: that wood pellets make sense in Canada, particular in remote, rural areas that aren’t tapped into the natural gas network.
Northerners know it too. In Hay River – a neighbouring community of Fort Smith (In Northern terms at least, it’s about a three hour drive northwest) – an enterprising individual has created a wood pellet dispensary system that can be installed in a home to eliminate the need to carry in heavy pellet bags. Robert Chenard told the Hay River Hub he plans to start selling and installing the new systems soon.
Easy, cheap, and better for the climate, heating with wood pellets north of 60 is a natural choice.