Nova Scotia Power Biomass in Cape Breton Raising Green Concerns

- by Aaron Beswick, January 9, 2015, The Chronicle Herald

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"373","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 333px; height: 188px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Aaron Beswick/Truro Bureau"}}]]About 2,790 hectares.

That’s a rough estimate of how much woodland will need to be cut annually to feed Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler at Point Tupper.

“It seems that more of the fears are coming true than the benefits we had envisioned from that facility,” said Kari Easthouse, manager of the Cape Breton Private Land Partnership.

Foresters in northern Nova Scotia are warning that the wood being burned at Nova Scotia Power’s new biomass boiler may be green, but the electricity coming out of it isn’t.

The boiler, started by now-defunct NewPage Port Hawkesbury Corp. and sold to Nova Scotia Power, opened during the summer of 2013. Running at peak capacity, which it is a bit shy of now, it burns 670,000 green tonnes of wood fibre annually to produce 60 megawatts of electricity.

“They’re going after anything they can get their hands on to feed that thing,” Phil Clark, an Antigonish County sawmill operator, said Thursday.

“They’re laying places to waste to feed it.”

The boiler was sold to Nova Scotians as a way to throw one stone at two birds.

First off, because trees grow back, it would help the province reach its renewable energy targets. Secondly, it would provide a market for wood not wanted for pulp and paper.

“By providing a market for the low-quality wood, the idea was that it would create opportunities to do treatments to increase the health and value of the forest,” said Easthouse.

“That isn’t what appears to be happening.”

What does is land getting cut solely to feed the boiler.

According to Nova Scotia Power, half the boiler’s needs are fed by wood waste from Port Hawkesbury Paper, sawmills and other woods operations. That leaves about 335,000 green tonnes that are cut to feed it.

A rough industry average in northern Nova Scotia is that you get about 120 tonnes of wood fibre off a hectare. Divide 335,000 tonnes by 120 and you get 2,792 hectares getting cut every year for the foreseeable future to be burned for electricity in a furnace that works at about 74per cent efficiency.

“You’ve got to be careful with averages,” Allan Eddy, associate deputy minister at the Natural Resources Department, warned Thursday. “If you shoot two feet in front of a duck and then two feet behind a duck, on average that duck is dead.”

However, Eddy acknowledged that land is being cleared to feed the biomass boiler.

He painted it as a matter of economics that couldn’t have been predicted before the plant opened and that is likely to change for the better in years to come.

Eddy said the shakeup of the province’s forest industry over the last five years has resulted in a severe decline in the province’s harvesting capacity. The NewPage Port Hawkesbury bankruptcy and the closure of Liverpool’s Bowater Mersey mill resulted in a lot of harvesting contractors jumping ship from the forest industry.

“For every 10 logs that the mills need cut, there’s the capacity to cut seven or (seven and a half) logs,” said Eddy.

That puts a premium on harvesting capacity.

He said Nova Scotia Power has an obligation to its ratepayers to get wood fibre as cheaply as possible. The cheapest way is to clear land, not selectively harvest to improve the lot for the future.

“Do all Nova Scotians who pay power bills want to pay a higher power bill so that they can help us improve our forest?” said Eddy.

“I don’t think there’s a guilty party. … The biomass plant is probably more of an opportunity than it is a problem, at this stage of the game. We’re still a little ways away from achieving the opportunities we envisioned.”

Easthouse agrees that the biomass plant still presents an opportunity if the harvesting methods are changed.

He also said the best thing to do with some stands, like those of beetle-damaged white spruce, is to clear them off and start fresh.

But that will require a vision for the future that’s not being shown now, he said.