Canadian Biomass Magazine

Biomass opportunities in wildfire management

October 3, 2016
By David Dubois - Community Energy Association

Oct. 3, 2016 - I have lived the majority of my life in small towns where forestry is a major player. In these towns, the forest was literally outside of the door. I am seeing growth of the interface between people and the forest.

Current climate trends show increases in average temperature, which are leading to changes in our environment. These environmental changes are leading to more wildfires, and by extension, more potential for serious negative impacts to those living in the wildland urban interface. These issues are being discussed in traditional forest communities around the coffee shop, pub, church, boardroom, council table, and at all levels of government. A more disturbing trend is that these discussions are now happening in communities not normally thought to be at risk. I recently had the opportunity to talk to a group of elected officials from Vancouver Island and B.C coast. One of the biggest topics of conversation when it came to climate change was the risk of forest fires and the impact to their communities.

The main way to reduce the risk of wildfire is to reduce the fuel load. FireSmart guidelines are the best example of this. The challenge is that the cost of this work is expensive. Managing to reduce wildfire risk is different than what is currently done by industry for harvesting timber. In many cases, the residues from harvesting are of little value to the traditional forest industry or they are in locations too far to be hauled economically to a sawmill. For many communities, having a localized market specifically designed to use these by-products would be ideal. District heating represents one of the best examples of a localized market for these wildfire residuals.

District heating uses a central heating plant to produce hot water (or in some cases, steam) that can then be distributed via pipes to buildings around the community. The largest benefit of district heating is that it is more efficient than having standalone heating systems. Depending on the fuel, it can also be significantly cheaper. For many communities, it is also an opportunity to realize non-tax revenue (depending on the ownership structure). If the system is fuelled by wildfire residuals, then the dollars spent on heat energy are used to support wildfire mitigation. Energy dollars spent on fossil fuels and electricity typically leave the community. The GHG emissions from biomass-fuelled systems are significantly lower than fossil fuels and depending where you are located, those of electricity.

Rural and remote communities are at the highest risk of wildfires. They also tend to have some of the highest energy costs, particularly if there is no access to natural gas. Having either a lower cost energy source like district heating or fuel type like biomass can be a significant economic advantage for communities looking to attract new energy intensive businesses.

The Village of Telkwa is a great example of a community that has been able to translate wildfire risk reduction into energy. In 2013, they installed a 300 kW biomass boiler. They are selling heat to seven clients, including the school and local businesses plus supplying heat to the village office. The primary fuel is wood chips sourced from wildfire mitigation. The annual consumption is estimated at 200 ODT per year. FPInnovations completed an analysis and estimated the wood costs at $93 ODT including chipping and transportation. The total capital cost including the chipper was about $650,000.

Many rural and remote communities have significant capacity limitations when it comes to developing new ideas. The Community Energy Association in collaboration with UBC has developed the Fire Interface Rural Screening Tool for Heating (FIRST Heat). This simple and free Excel-based tool allows users from the forest sector and municipal sectors to input forest type, age management level, management zone and area into the model. FIRST Heat will then estimate the amount of biomass fuel produced annually (beyond initial thinning), sustainability, boiler size, capital cost, levelized cost of energy and GHG savings. The model currently only works for B.C., but other areas are in development. FIRST Heat is available at in the Resources section. As our environment changes, the ability for communities to return to simple solutions like bioenergy, that allow the integration into their surroundings in a true triple bottom line solution, is imperative. 



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