Moving into the area of biomass energy doesn’t need to be a bewildering experience, a small audience of some 35 heard Tuesday at the Biomass Energy Forum.
They heard how the Kluane First Nation is already using wood to provide district heating for some of its government buildings, creating substantial savings on heating fuel and dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
And the First Nation wants to expand its district heating, and possibly begin using wood biomass to generate electricity for the isolated grid that supplies Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay.
Dan Reams of Watson Lake is currently in Finland looking at what sort of wood gasification unit would be appropriate to heat a couple of government buildings in the community while generating electricity to sell back to ATCO Electric Yukon.
Jessie Reams, his son, was attending the forum.
Ryan Hennessey of the Yukon government’s energy branch said the government is committed to installing biomass systems in two government buildings in the next year.
The technology to provide district heating and generate electricity using wood is readily available, the audience heard.
It also heard biomass systems need champions, someone to push for them, someone to ensure they’re maintained, because they are technical, complicated and simple at the same time but do require maintenance.
The audience heard how a teacher in Tok, Alaska pushed for a biomass heating system using wood chips produced from local trees.
The teacher moved on after the $800,000 system was installed, but before it was operational, and it just sat there idle.
But the teacher is returning.
It is of the utmost importance to ensure any biomass systems fit the specific needs of the community, and that there is the skilled workforce to install and service the specialized equipment, said one audience member who spent eight years working in the industry in Finland.
He said it’s one thing to have a system go wonky at a college or university where there is the technical expertise to analyze and repair problems. It’s a different story for remote and isolated communities where help could be days away, he said.
Forum moderator Myles Thorp said when he was with the government’s forestry branch in 2008 before retiring, they looked into why the interest in biomass systems seemed to have stalled in the Yukon.
He said what they found was lingering resentment for a couple of biomass projects that failed here early the 1980s; the system for the Yukon College, Elijah Smith Elementary School and the Elijah Smith Federal Building.
Concerns with domestic wood smoke in Riverdale back then didn’t help, nor did the war in the woods through the 1980s and ’90s over commercial timber harvesting in B.C., a fight that seemed to spill into the Yukon, he said.
Tuesday’s audience heard how the stars are starting to line up, particularly since the government adopted its own Forest Resources Act in 2011.
The act leaves behind the old federal way of doing business and is providing the foundation to negotiate forest management plans with communities, to determine where logging should and should not occur, and what the total harvest in an area should be.
The government has just released its Yukon Biomass Energy Strategy last month, it was pointed out.
Colin Asselstine, general manager of the Kluane Community Development Corp., said the abundance of beetle- and fire-killed wood in the Kluane region is huge.
A study put the sustainable annual harvest at 100,000 cubic metres – 27,600 cords – Asselstine pointed out.
The existing district heating system that has been warming four Kluane First Nation buildings since 1998 burns an average of 40 cords per year, and tops at 60, he added.
Those attending the biomass workshop at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre have heard speakers discuss everything from the most recent and sophisticated technology to the use of wood biomass during the Second World War to power vehicles.
There were about one million vehicles – cars, trucks, farm tractors, school buses – powered by wood gasification units attached to the vehicles during the war, because gas and diesel fuel was rationed, if not unavailable altogether, the audience heard.
They heard how the new Austrian biomass boiler installed at the Raven Recycling Centre, now in its sixth day of operation, is burning waste wood, mostly pallets. It will reduce requirements for heating fuel by 30,000 to 40,000 litres a year.
One speaker this morning told the audience how he’s currently researching whether it’s viable to produce electricity from the heat off of domestic wood stoves.
It’s possible, because all you need to produce electricity is one piece of hot metal and one piece of cold metal to create an electrical current between the two, Marc Albert, an electrical engineer, told the audience.
Whether it’s practical to generate electricity with domestic wood stoves is the question he is pursuing, with the assistance of funding from the Yukon Research Centre and its Cold Climate Innovation department, he said.
There’s no way a woodstove would provide enough power for the average home. But for homes with more modest requirements, it could make a noticeable contribution, Albert told the audience.
He said a woodstove generating system might also be a nice fit to augment wind and solar systems.
The forum was scheduled to wrap up this afternoon, but not before a panel discussion on the availability of Yukon wood to sustain a biomass energy sector.