Energy debate heats up in Nova Scotia
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, December 21, 2009 6:59AM EST
HALIFAX - A debate is brewing between the Nova Scotia government, focus groups and environmentalists over the sustainability of harvesting trees and burning low-grade wood to meet the province's energy needs.
This energy source, known as biomass, has been used for heat and electricity in Europe for years and, on a small scale, in many Canadian provinces.
It is being recommended by a government-commissioned consultation team as a component of a provincewide renewable energy strategy, but some worry that Nova Scotia doesn't have the necessary regulations in place to go ahead with any large-scale forest biomass projects.
Prof. David Wheeler, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University and leader of the consultation team, says biomass will help the province achieve its goal of producing 25 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy generation by 2015.
In an interim report released last week, he said biomass would generate about 15 per cent of the province's renewable energy in the short term, with large-scale and community wind farms making up the additional 85 per cent.
In an interview, Wheeler said biomass could make significant contributions economically, ecologically and socially to the province, provided it is done to the "highest possible standards."
He said biomass is a relatively cheap energy source because it uses non-commercial wood, such as knotty trees, tree stumps and branches, to fuel power plants.
It also helps keep consumer energy prices down, Wheeler said, and helps the province meet its climate change goals by replacing burned fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, that release carbon dioxide into the air.
It may also bring opportunity to small and rural communities since they will be able to generate and sell power to the province, maintaining and creating jobs.
"If money is being diverted, for example, out of the Colombian economy for purchasing coal and, instead, we're putting that money into the Nova Scotia economy to produce forestry products ... to the highest possible environmental standards, that's a win-win," he said. "So we just have to define what those highest possible standards are."
But without knowing how the highest possible environmental standards will be defined, Jamie Simpson, a forester with Halifax's Ecology Action Centre, can't endorse large-scale biomass forestry as a renewable energy solution.
Simpson worries that unregulated whole-tree harvesting could remove the tree tops, stumps and branches that traditional forestry leaves behind, which he said provide needed nutrients and shade to the soil.
Guidelines for biomass harvesting are being drafted by the province's Department of Natural Resources, but Simpson said they are for Crown land and will not apply to private lots.
"And they're only guidelines," said Simpson.
A lack of provincial regulation for biomass harvesting is also a concern for some in Ontario, which has begun to use renewable energy sources after committing to shut down all of its coal-fired plants.
Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, a charitable organization that supports environmental sustainability in forestry practice, said without provincial regulations, there's a risk that people won't understand the importance of retaining those parts of the tree that are necessary to regenerate forests.
"I don't think the (Ontario) government really appreciates the risks that are involved," Lourie said.
Simpson and Lourie both say the long-term economic viability of the Canadian forestry industry may be hindered by a reliance on biomass for energy since it might impede Canada's capacity to provide for more lucrative endeavours, such as supplying lumber to the U.S. housing market.
"As anyone knows, in terms of Canada's role in resources, the last thing you want to be doing is exploiting resources at the lowest point on the value chain," said Lourie.
Lourie said biomass makes sense for small plants that are situated near forest operations.
Nova Scotia Power has been following the debate and is testing burning biomass wood pellets with coal at some of their power plants with good results, says Robin McAdam, executive vice-president of sustainability for the company.
Wheeler's final report is due to the Nova Scotia government by the end of the year.