August 29, 2023 By Gordon Murray
As I write this message, we are halfway through a catastrophic fire season with devastation experienced across the country and herculean efforts made by firefighters who have come to our aid from around the world.
Normally, wildfires are how our forests are shaped and how they renew. According to Canada’s National Forestry Database, dynamic processes such as fires burn an average of 21,000 square kilometres of forest area each year. By the end of June this year, more than 76,000 square kilometres of forest area had been burned, generating more than 160 million tonnes of carbon, according to the EU’s atmosphere monitoring service Copernicus.
Today, Canada is experiencing longer wildfire seasons and more extreme fire behaviour, placing growing risks on communities, critical infrastructure, economies, people’s health and safety, and long-term forest health.
Natural Resources Canada reports that the average area burned annually has more than doubled since the 1970s, and wildfire experts predict that number will at least double again by the end of the century.
Until recently, the role of biomass in fire mitigation has largely been overlooked. The reality is that the wood pellet sector has a critical role to play by converting excess forest floor debris from harvested areas into renewable energy.
Carbon sink or source?
The carbon stored in Canada’s forests isn’t just good for the climate; there’s also a significant dollar figure attached to it, says Jamie Stephen, Ph.D., managing director of TorchLight Bioresources. The carbon price planned for 2030 is $170/t CO2, putting the asset value of the above ground biomass in Canada’s forests at $7.5 trillion. Despite this value, the government invests only a few hundred million dollars annually in protecting this asset. Stephen says, “If governments invested a mere 0.1 per cent of that value, it would be a massive step change and could go towards removing excess wood waste – fuel – from the forest.”
Excess fuel and a warming planet
In many countries around the world, including Canada, decades-long policies of suppressing fires have created massive fuel loads just waiting for a spark. Wildfire campaigns over the decades have portrayed fire as an enemy.
The fact is climate change is exacerbating the situation. Today the forest fuels are drier, and according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, there are more lightning strikes, resulting in larger fires, especially in Canada’s boreal forests.
Stephen says we can give ourselves a fighting chance by removing high-risk biomass (fuel) from the forest and using prescribed burns. Removing this “waste wood” from publicly owned forests will require governments and public attitudes to sway from the “cost of doing business” to the “cost of saving our forests and communities.”
FireSmart communities can create clean energy
According to the Canadian government’s databases, the number of disastrous wildfires has increased steadily since the 1980s, when there were fewer than 10 such fires compared to nearly 40 between 2010 and 2019. The database defines a disaster as meeting one of the following criteria: more than 10 people are killed, more than 100 people are affected, or an appeal for national/international assistance was issued.
To reduce the likelihood of catastrophic events, experts at Natural Resources Canada point to pro-active forest and fire management approaches such as reducing fuels available to burn (tree thinning, conducting planned burns, removing deadwood), planting fire-tolerant tree species, and creating more fire breaks.
The Nazko First Nation’s territory near Quesnel, B.C., was hit hard by the mountain pine beetle epidemic and by major wildfires. The Nation wanted to reduce the risk of future fires and with funding from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC, it launched an initiative selectively harvesting dead standing trees, dead trees that had blown down, and smaller understory trees. Resulting sawlogs went to sawmills while pulp logs went to pulp mills in Quesnel. Waste material was processed and sent to local pellet plants.
The wood pellet sector can also play an important role in rehabilitating the forest after a fire and salvaging the fibre. In 2015, the Bobtail Lake Fire burned more than 25,000 hectares of land west of Prince George, B.C. Before the arrival of the wood pellet sector, the burned wood would have been left to decay over many years, slowly emitting carbon to the atmosphere. Fortunately, wood pellet producer Pacific Bioenergy saw an opportunity to salvage fibre from this area, creating a valuable product and providing jobs, while at the same time opening up the fire area for reforestation activities to restore a healthy forest to this burned landscape.
The pellets from the fuel in our forests can be used for industrial power generation globally as well as to heat and power our homes and buildings in Canada. Examples continue to grow: Ontario Power Generation operates the largest biomass plant in North America; in Yellowknife, 33 per cent of the territorial government buildings are heated with wood pellets; hospitals, schools, and commercial buildings across the Maritimes use biomass; the Tsi Del Del Nation sells biomass to the Atlantic Power facility, providing power to more than 50,000 homes.
Biomass as a climate champion
With the planet’s changing climate, governments across the globe have implemented ambitious climate goals, which have caused a seismic shift toward clean energy. Bioheat from wood pellets is shifting from niche to mainstream.
Today, nearly three quarters of the world’s renewable energy is from biomass. Bioenergy accounts for about 10 per cent of total final energy consumption and two per cent of global electricity generation. In the U.S. and the EU, bioenergy accounts for 60 per cent of all renewable energy. In fact, over the past 20 years, bioenergy is responsible for the most greenhouse gas reductions.
Renewable energy is also considered indispensable to Japan’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050. For the first time in history, Japan has surpassed the U.K. in pellet imports from Canada. Canadian wood pellets are being used in hundreds of power plants across Japan.
Meeting of minds in Ottawa
Today, biomass is recognized by the Government of Canada as both a solution to wildfire mitigation and as a low carbon technology. But to reach its full potential, good public policy from the ground up and fair incentives from governments are needed. From investments in removal of fuel from the forest to new product innovation and incentives, there’s lots of opportunity for both our sector and governments to do more.
I’m looking forward to our upcoming annual conference in Ottawa where we will explore these topics.
Gordon Murray is the executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
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