Canadian Biomass Magazine

In the aftermath of a climate disaster

February 21, 2024
By Mark Heyck | Arctic Energy Alliance

Arctic Energy Alliance is pushing the Northwest Territories to be a national biomass leader

A pellet boiler heats a building in the Northwest Territories. Photo: Mark Heyck

When you think of the Northwest Territories, an almost unfathomable expanse of forest might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But with a sparse population and a gigantic landmass, the majority of which is below the tree line, most of the territory is uninhabited woodland.

Thanks in part to this enormous natural resource, the NWT has quietly become a national leader in biomass heating. And with the effects of climate change bearing down on the North, biomass energy is becoming more essential than ever.

Biomass heating in the NWT: a (very) brief history

Biomass has a long history in the NWT. Wood is a traditional source of heat and is often less costly than other fuels, which can be prohibitively expensive. Wood stoves are a common sight in homes, and pellet boilers are becoming increasingly common for larger buildings.

Since 1997, the Arctic Energy Alliance (AEA) has been pushing the adoption of biomass heat in the territory. The AEA is a government-funded non-profit that helps Northerners find ways to save energy, lower their bills and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, the AEA launched a program to provide rebates on energy-efficient products that people use every day, including wood stoves. And in 2014, it took over administration of a program started by the territorial government to provide rebates for renewable energy systems, including biomass boilers and furnaces. 


The organization also has a program to provide technical advice and studies for people and organizations who are interested in using biomass heating, such as a group installing district heating systems.

One of the AEA’s most notable initiatives has been its community wood stove projects, which first launched in 2011. Under these projects, a partner – such as a community government – will team up with the AEA to help homeowners get new, efficient stoves at little to no cost. The community partners are responsible for choosing the recipients, who may be people in need. The stoves are installed according to safety codes, and in some cases, replace units that are no longer safe. These replacement stoves reduce local particulate emissions and allow people to continue to safely keep heating costs down by using wood heat. In other cases, homeowners can get a wood stove for the first time, which can greatly reduce their energy bills and lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the AEA is not the only organization in the NWT leading the shift to more biomass heating. In 2006, for example, the City of Yellowknife adopted its first community energy plan. It included several studies on energy-saving measures and various technologies and led to the widespread adoption of biomass heating for city facilities. I was a city councillor at the time, and fully supported the transition to fewer fossil fuels.

When climate change hits home

his past summer, Canada saw its worst wildfire season on record. Proportionally, the NWT may have been hit harder than any other province or territory. Approximately 4.1 million hectares were affected, which is 23 per cent of the total area that burned across the country and equivalent to more than half of New Brunswick. Almost 70 per cent of the territory’s residents were forced to evacuate their homes and communities. And the fires released more than 110 megatonnes of carbon – more than a quarter of the emissions from all the wildfires across Canada combined.

The fires were an obvious challenge for everyone in the NWT, and the AEA was no exception. The evacuations put some of the organization’s work on hold and meant it had to change the schedule for its community wood stove projects for the year.

The disaster brought to the fore the fact that both adaptation and mitigation are necessary when dealing with climate change. We need to prepare for extreme weather events and climate-related natural disasters. At the same time, it’s important to do all that we can to keep them from getting worse. When it comes to climate change, the AEA’s work is focused on mitigation, and that’s where biomass comes in.

What can we do?

The NWT’s population may be small, but with the North so affected by climate change, the territory can be a model for elsewhere. Ironically, the devastating wildfires highlight the case for biomass as one way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels: when used sustainably, biofuels can be considered carbon neutral.

The Government of the Northwest Territories, in its 2030 Energy Strategy, laid out a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the territory by 517 kilotonnes over 2016 levels. One of the major objectives to meet this goal is to increase the share of renewable energy used for space heating to 40 per cent. 

Biomass is one of the main ways to achieve this objective, and the AEA is helping to lead the charge. In addition to regular programs and projects, it has recently been promoting biomass heating through an annual Northwest Territories Biomass Week conference (the week of Jan. 29, 2024), held in conjunction with the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. It has also started what it calls biomass “fast-track” projects, where the AEA gives out rebates for installing biomass boilers. Other organizations are also working to encourage the adoption of biomass heating, and the effort is paying off: the territory is seeing new biomass heating systems installed every year.

Of course, it’s not all roses. There are still gaps in the labour force and supply chains can be an issue in communities without year-round road access. More work needs to be done, and collaboration and co-operation are necessary for successful projects. But with forests aplenty and climate change looming large, the NWT is on track to continue being at the forefront of biomass heating in Canada. •

Mark Heyck is the executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance in Yellowknife, and previously served two terms as mayor.

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