Energizing our world with wood sounds so natural. And it has quickly become a multibillion-dollar industry as governments including British Columbia and the European Union turn to biomass to replace dirty old coal. Yet what we found when we dug into the coal-vs.-wood debate will surprise you.
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British Columbia doesn’t maintain a centralized registry of biomass energy facilities in the province, so in the course of reporting “Smoke and Numbers,” we put together our own list from independent sources.
Click any dot on the map to view the facility’s name, size and a description of its operations.
Industry advocates say B.C. could become the “Saudi Arabia of Biomass” — but that probably won’t be good for the global climate. Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/Wikimedia.
Eight words in a 927-page document. That’s all it took to launch a European policy with big implications for B.C. That policy counts burning wood to produce energy as equivalent, climate-wise, to solar and wind power. This despite the fact that burning wood releases the very same greenhouse gasses as any fossil fuel; the same gasses that are turning oceans acidic and melting the polar ice caps. Here are the eight words: “The emission factor for biomass shall be zero.”
Not, you will note, “are zero.” No: “shall be zero.” Behind that starkly declarative pronouncement lay months of tense international negotiations over the climate-change implications of burning biomass, or any kind of plant matter: wood, agricultural wastes, or crops grown for burning. In the end, the winning argument was that biomass regrows, recapturing the carbon released when it was burned, and therefore must be OK for the climate.
University of British Columbia’s Brent Sauder Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest
As director of strategic partnerships for the University of British Columbia, Brent Sauder had a major role in shaping plans for the new $34 million biomass power plant on campus, known as the Bioenergy Research and Development Facility. The industrial facility sits just across the street from bluffs overlooking Georgia Strait — some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, in other words.
In an on-campus interview last year with InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure for our “Smoke and Numbers” series with The Tyee, Sauder explained UBC’s motivations and rationale for bringing the facility to campus in a partnership with General Electric and Vancouver-based Nexterra. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
Brent Sauder: One of the problems with BC is that we have very cheap power. The development of these kinds of technologies would tend to take place in places where there’s higher power prices. But obviously we want to have good companies grow in British Columbia so this was an opportunity for us to actually get them to develop their product here.
When they first came to us saying would we be interested in being a demonstration site, in typical Canadian fashion the only thing we have is land so that’s what we actually put toward the project. We have a site.
UBC is about 50,000 students. It’s one of the largest land grant universities in North America and we have our own governance system. We’re not the city of Vancouver. So part of the whole thing of this project was to get the social license to actually build a facility like this.
Robert McClure: Because it’s an industrial facility in the middle of campus?
A worker unloads a truckload of biomass at the Univeristy of British Columbia energy plant. Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest
The crackling log fire, flickering in an open hearth, may win the day for romance or Christmas cards. From the modern viewpoint of efficiency and good health, it’s more of a horror show. Our ancestors, living in unvented huts lit and warmed by open fires, wheezed and coughed their way to early deaths. Burning wood still releases an old-timey scented bouquet of toxins: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, and a couple dozen other chemicals classifiedas hazardous air pollutants, along with ultrafine particles of super-toxic soot that go deep into the lungs. As a 2007 Health Canada review put it, “Even though wood smoke is natural, it is not benign.”
For that reason, a well-run modern biomass-burning power plant is much less smoky than a fireplace. High-tech smoke scrubbers with multisyllabic names like “electrostatic precipitator” and “regenerative thermal oxidizers” scrub their exhaust, and operators work continually to bring down pollution levels, tweaking temperatures and fuels. The state-of-the-art may be UBC’s $34-million Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility reported on in the first installment in this series: what comes out of its smokestack is even cleaner than emissions from most natural-gas plants.
UBC’s new $34-million Biomass Research and Development Facility is cutting edge in the age-old practice of converting wood to heat and power. But the features that make the plant clean-burning also make it hard to replicate. And like UBC’s old natural-gas-fired plant, it produces greenhouse gases. Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest
Nestled into a seaside forest on the University of British Columbia’s lands, amid a carpet of sword ferns and salal, sits a gleaming industrial facility that’s been hailed as a significant step toward a carbon-neutral future for B.C., Canada and even the world.
The wood-gas fired plant just off Marine Drive in Vancouver, the university boasts, “will reduce UBC’s natural gas consumption by 12 per cent and campus greenhouse gas emissions by nine per cent (5,000 tonnes), the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road.”
“It’s very exciting,” said Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic partnerships, who helped shape plans for the plant. “It’s not a research activity — it’s a mission.”
Wood chips, a climate-friendly fuel under Canadian law, will be processed and burned for energy in B.C. Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest
About our “Smoke and Numbers” Project
For a place with so much nature and such a green ethic, British Columbia has struggled to identify with any of the big next-generation sources of renewable energy.
Most of the province’s electricity comes from large hydro dams. That power is renewable. But efforts to expand production are fiercely contested. What about solar? Why not wind power?
Long summer days are offset by short and cloudy winter ones. So solar energy is an affair of the heart more than the pocketbook: one installation on a North Vancouver home will take an estimated two-and-a-half centuries to pay for itself.
Some of the world’s strongest winds are clocked off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. But getting power from Hecate Strait to southern markets is an overwhelming engineering challenge.
Then there’s biomass: plants that can be burned and replaced with new ones that suck back up the carbon that was released in the flames. British Columbia’s unofficial provincial motto could be “Trees’R’ Us.” Might the province’s forests turn it into a veritable Saudi Arabia of renewable biofuel? That day may be coming: shipments of B.C. fuelwood pellets are worth nearly $200 million a year to the provincial economy.
But with fire comes smoke — and inevitably, greenhouse gases. A growing chorus of biomass skeptics questions how green and climate-friendly wood fuel truly is.
Canada actively participated in the international negotiations that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that was supposed to start turning the tide on climate change. That pact committed Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. In the nearly two decades since, climate politics in Canada and British Columbia in particular have repeatedly whiplashed.