Canadian Biomass Magazine

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WPAC: to lower GHG emissions, BC should prioritize solid biofuels for heat


July 13, 2020
By Gordon Murray, WPAC

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The wood pellet industry employs 2,500 British Columbians. Photo courtesy Pinnacle Renewable Energy.

In 2018, the Government of British Columbia released its Clean Energy Plan, promising to create opportunities for all while protecting the province’s clean air, land and water. Remarkably, the plan gives almost no consideration of forest-based bioenergy. Nevertheless, the government did commit to renew the province’s bioenergy strategy, which now – two years later – it is working on. Alarmingly, the government is planning to exclude the use of solid biofuels for heat in B.C. The wood pellet industry is deeply troubled by this.

B.C. has developed a significant wood pellet industry that provides 2,500 direct and indirect jobs. The industry has played a critical role in reducing wildfire risk and improving air quality in the province. B.C. exports 99 per cent of its 2.5 million tonnes of wood pellet production to Europe and Asia so other countries can reduce fossil fuel use in building heating and power generation. In 2019, this fuel switching resulted in the reduction of approximately four million tonnes CO2e, which represents over six per cent of B.C.’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

B.C. also leads Canada in consumption of bioenergy, with combined heat and power (CHP) generation by B.C.’s forest products sector 50 per cent greater than the energy in all of Canada’s ethanol, biodiesel, renewable diesel, and renewable natural gas fuel production combined. Had the forest products sector used fossil fuels instead of wood residues for heat generation, B.C.’s GHG emissions would have been over 10 per cent greater.

We have urged government to reverse its exclusions of solid biofuels for heat in B.C. from the strategy in view of the following facts:

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  • In the EU, solid biomass has an 84 per cent share of the renewable heating and cooling market, which is a much larger market than electricity or transportation. The amount of energy supplied by solid biomass heating is equal to all renewable electricity generation, including large hydropower, combined. There are over 850,000 modern wood boilers in the EU, with over 30,000 commercial/institution modern wood boilers. In Denmark, the world’s leader in wind power, consumption of solid biomass energy is 2.5 times that of wind power.
  • Under the United Kingdom’s C$2.3 billion Renewable Heat Incentive, 88 per cent of projects are modern wood boilers. This is despite the fact the Treasury-based payments have generally been higher for heat pumps.
  • Cities such as a Copenhagen and Stockholm are heated by large, wood-fired combined heat and power plants. The C$1 billion Amagerværket plant in Copenhagen consumes 1.2 million tonnes of wood per year, heats ¼ of the city, and is responsible for 1.2 mega tonnes (Mt) of CO2e reductions per year. The C$750 million Värtaverket plant in Stockholm consumes one million tonnes of wood per year, heats 190,000 residences, provides power for 150,000 electric vehicles, and is responsibility for 650,000 tonnes of CO2e reductions per year. Copenhagen will be the world’s first net zero city (2025), with Stockholm achieving that goal before 2030. The use of wood for building heat is central to their strategies.
  • Wood accounts for over 95 per cent of B.C.’s biomass resource. Despite billions of dollars of investments, wood-to-liquid fuels and wood-to-RNG are pre-commercial technologies. These technologies are also dramatically lower in efficiency and an order of magnitude higher cost than direct heat generation from wood. Modern wood heat and CHP boilers are 85-90 per cent efficient. In contrast, wood-to-liquid fuels technology has a conversion efficiency of 30-35 per cent and wood-to-RNG-to-heat has a conversion efficiency of 45-50 per cent. It makes no sense to use the same resource but produce half as much heat. The largest wood-to-RNG project to date, the GoBiGas demonstration plant in Gothenburg, Sweden, has been mothballed and is generally regarded as a failure. It is over nine times more efficient to generate heat and electricity from wood and use the electricity for an EV, rather than use the wood for liquid fuels.
  • Uncontrolled burning of wood has no resemblance to the use of wood fuels in modern wood boilers. A modern residential wood pellet boiler reduces particulate matter emissions by 98 per cent relative to a conventional wood stove and 99.9 per cent relative to a fireplace. A large wood-fuelled CHP plant reduces particulate matter emissions by 99.995 per cent relative to open burn. The air pollution (e.g., particulate matter) emissions from Amagerværket and Värtaverket are significantly LOWER than residential natural gas furnaces per unit supplied heat, despite being fuelled by wood. Hence, wood fuels can be used to reduce air pollution when consumed in a modern wood system at an appropriate scale.
  • In B.C., bioenergy must be viewed as a climate ADAPTATION approach as well as a mitigation approach. Solid biomass heating is the primary market for low-grade wood, residues, and FireSmart wildfire risk reduction thinnings. Instead of open burning in a wildfire or residue pile, using this wood for fuel in a modern boiler can reduce particulate matter emissions by up to 99.995 per cent per tonne. Hence, wood heating can improve health outcomes relative to the baseline while reducing wildfire risk in B.C.’s interior communities.
  • All of B.C.’s GHG mitigation efforts will be in vain if it does not reduce black carbon (soot) emissions from wildfires and slash pile burning. Black carbon is a high impact, short-lived climate pollutant. The 10-year average for GHG emissions from B.C. wildfires is 25.3 Mt of CO2e, while the average from slash (harvest residue) pile burning is 4.7 Mt of CO2e. This indicates wildfires in B.C. have been responsible, on average, for 14,160 tonnes per year of black carbon emissions while slash pile burning has been responsible for 2,630 tonnes per year of black carbon emissions. With a 20-year Global Warming Potential (GWP) for black carbon of up to 3,200 times CO2, wildfire and slash pile black carbon emissions could be responsible for 54 Mt of CO2e/year. This is equal to 84 per cent of B.C.’s GHG emissions. As the climate warms, B.C. is anticipated to experience more and larger wildfires on average, meaning the black carbon climate impact could exceed all GHG emissions. As with particulate matter, use of the same wood in a modern boiler would reduce black carbon emissions by up to 99.995 per cent.
  • Sweden and Finland use bioenergy to enable active forest management to maximize forest productivity and carbon sequestration. Despite bioenergy being over 30 per cent of Sweden’s energy supply, the net carbon uptake by Sweden’s forests reduces the country’s GHG emissions by 80 per cent – to less than one tonne of CO2e per person. A market for low-grade wood is required for active forest management, as practiced in the Nordic and Germanic countries in Europe.
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS or Bio-CCS) has been identified by the UN and international climate leaders as the critical ‘negative emissions’ technology. It is dramatically lower cost and higher efficiency to reduce emissions from the aviation and heavy-duty trucking industry by applying CCS to large bioenergy facilities to offset jet fuel/diesel emissions than to convert the wood to liquid or RNG fuels. B.C. wood pellets are already being used at the Drax BECCS project in the UK and the Värtaverket plant in Stockholm is trialling BECCS to offset all transportation GHG emissions in the city.
  • Although it is the lowest cost approach for renewable heat in many instances, solid biomass heating creates six to eight times the number of operating jobs of wind, solar, and hydro per unit energy, with most jobs created in rural areas to support the wood fuel supply chain and forest management. This means adoption of wood heat in urban areas would create thousands of rural and Indigenous jobs in rural areas of B.C. Using figures from the EU, allocation of slash piles currently burned in B.C. to modern wood fuel production and use would result in the near-term creation of over 7,500 jobs.

It is important to note no new technology development is required for B.C. to dramatically reduce GHG emissions from building heating using solid wood fuels. Using wood for heat is scalable from the individual, rural residence level to city-wide heating using central CHP plants and district energy. It will also lead to significant air quality improvement across the province. The mountain pine beetle has devastated B.C.’s forest sector and while sawmill wood shortages exist, there are large volumes of fire-prone timber and residues. The energy content of B.C.’s timber harvest is approximately double the province’s electricity generation, which puts the scale of the residue and FireSmarting opportunity in context. If B.C. is serious about reducing GHG emissions from the building sector by 2030, it must prioritize the use of solid wood fuels and the deployment of commercial modern wood heating technologies.