Wood Biofuels, The Great Leap Backwards?

Growing up in rural British Columbia, my family, as with many others, heated our home with firewood. It is abundant, inexpensive and really does warm you twice. Despite stewarding one of the greatest forest resources on the planet, the majority of Canadians have migrated to over electricity and natural gas over the past few decades spurred on by the convenience and relative low cost of these energy choices. This transition has been helped along by the efforts of government regulations and local bylaws looking to quell smoke emissions. Rather than promoting technologies to scrub and neutralize smoke emissions, a veritable wood heat witch hunt emerged in many areas making it very difficult and expensive to have wood burning appliances approved in new construction and setting limits on use of existing wood stoves. Having some of the largest hydroelectric resources in our backyard hasn’t hurt the transition either.

Outside of the home, large industrial energy users, such as forest product manufacturers and a limited number of power stations have continued to supply some or all of their heat and electricity needs with wood waste (“hog fuels”). Saw milling operations were also the genesis for the wood pellet industry; dry, clean wood shavings have until recently been inexpensive and abundant. Running these wood fines through a hammer mill produces a dense, easy to handle, transport and store fuel. Some of these pellets are consumed domestically but most are exported to northern Europe (Sweden in particular) where large carbon taxes drive alternatives to coal-fired electrical generation.

Enter the age of the “is it hot in here or is it just the planet,” and suddenly low carbon emissions have brought about renewed interest in biomass for bioenergy. This week plans were unveiled in the southeast US for the construction of the world’s largest wood pellet plant. This operation will have the capacity to compress 750,000 tonnes of wood annually and will primarily service the demand from Europe.