Sustainability means many things for biomass. First, there’s site sustainability, or the question of how much we can harvest, where, and how.
By Scott Jamieson
Sustainability means many things for biomass. First, there’s site sustainability, or the question of how much we can harvest, where, and how. This is the subject of a new column by Evelyne Thiffault of Natural Resources Canada, which she’ll address on page 8. We’re all learning as we go, including Evelyne, so I look forward to her keeping this topic on the front burner each issue. It’s only renewable energy if the forest is renewed.
There’s also economic sustainability – Can we get the biomass out of the bush cost-effectively? That’s where our other new columnist, Mark Ryans of FPInnovations (Feric), comes in. He’s been studying residual biomass harvesting, processing, and hauling for decades and has agreed to share his findings regularly with Canadian Biomass. His first column is on
Finally, there’s the traditional forest products sector. Lately we’ve heard that the demand for biomass may threaten access to affordable fibre for existing players. Those at risk include panel plants using sawmill residuals and pulp mills using low-grade fibre. Change can be threatening, especially to those who’ve called the shots for decades when it comes to if, when, and at what price they’ll use lower-grade material. So industry associations like the US-based AF&PA are expressing concern about the growing biomass sector. There are worries about “distorting fibre markets,” as if the status quo were sacred, or about fibre being diverted to “lower value uses,” as if affordable heating were less important than paper for ad flyers.
It’s good dinner debate, but the way the biomass sector is developing in Canada, we may not need to argue. First, the bioenergy sector cannot afford to simply outbid traditional players for all its fibre. It must stay competitive with other energy sources, including hydro, coal, and wind/solar. Even when biomass is free, it’s hard to break even after the haul distance exceeds 150 km or so. Biomass will be part of a strong forest products sector for some time to come.
The way the biomass sector is actually developing should also quell concerns. The spotlight is on harvest residues that are not used by traditional industry. If anything, minimum top diameters have increased in recent years with poor lumber markets, leaving more in the woods, not less. In other areas, we’re talking about material that’s ill-suited for manufacturing, like beetle kill wood or off-species.
Finally, there are massive volumes of wood that aren’t being harvested simply because the traditional players are gone. In southeastern Ontario and New York, low-grade fibre used to go to the now closed Domtar pulp mill in Cornwall. Five pulp mills have closed in the part of New Brunswick now called the Dark Crescent, freeing over 1.6 million m3/yr, not counting harvest residuals. Large regions of Quebec and Ontario have seen permanent closures, as has most of Saskatchewan. These are vast potential supplies. They also show that in parts of Canada, the traditional forest sector has lost its right to lead. It’s time to follow, or get the hell out of the way.
Scott Jamieson, Editor/Group Publisher