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Nelson's biomass energy plan moves forward

The plan would use wood waste to heat selected public buildings in Nelson.
The biomass plant in Enderby

Nelson Hydro will hold an open house in the early fall to update the public on the progress of its plans to heat selected public buildings in Nelson using heat created by burning lumber mill waste.

Fiona Galbraith, a local consultant for Nelson Hydro, says the project at full capacity would use only 15 per cent of the available wood waste in an area within 80 km of Nelson. She said the biomass boiler would not be recognizable as an industrial building and would take up an area about the size of the tennis courts at LakesidePark. She said it would produce minimal emissions because of advanced combustion technology and there would be a maximum of two delivery trucks per day in the coldest part of the year. Its location has not been decided yet.

The biomass boiler would produce heat, not electricity, heat that would otherwise be produced by natural gas,which Galbraith says has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than waste wood.

The plan for the district energy system a local energy source for specific buildings has been in the works for several years. In 2014, a consultant hired by Nelson Hydro determined that biomass would be more cost effective than the other alternatives being considered at the time including geothermal.

Which buildings?

The buildings under consideration to be heated by the biomass project are city hall, the Civic Centre, theCommunity First Health Co-op and the hospital, although no final decision has been made by the owners of any of these buildings. Last year the indoor soccer building and the curling club were under consideration but after an examination of those buildings by a mechanical engineer, Galbraith said there may be too much retrofitting required.

The goal is to get memorandums of agreement in place with specific buildings by early next year for consideration by city council.

“For the first phase you want to put together the best buildings, the core group of buildings that have the best business case, and we are still in the information collecting stage,” Galbraith said.

Biomass boiler location and size

As for the location of the plant, that won’t be decided until the buildings to be heated by it are identified, butGalbraith said it will be a small building that does not look industrial, and she cites the biomass plant in Enderby,pictured above.

Fuel supply

Galbraith says her research tells her there is more than enough waste wood in mills in the Nelson area.

“We are going to put out an expression of interest to fuel suppliers and get an idea of what is currently out there,what can they supply us with, what is the moisture content going to be, what will the quality be, who is going topay for shipping.”

Air quality

One of the challenges of biomass energy is to burn wood without putting noxious gases into the air. Some cutting edge biomass plants claim to reduce air pollution to almost nothing, like the Biomass Research and Development Facility at UBC, which will provide parts of the campus with both heat and electricity.

But on the downside, The Tyee reported in 2014 that 79 per cent of the 107 biomass plants in the US have been cited for violating air quality standards in the previous five years.

So if, or whether, the Nelson plant would pollute our air may reside in the details of the technology that is chosen.

“We know people will be concerned about air quality,” Galbraith says. “We have contracted an air quality expert who has worked on a lot of these kinds of projects, and he will be (developing) baseline measurements for Nelson.He will be able to say what the impacts of a district energy system will be. And we are working with the environment ministry to make sure we are working within their guidelines as well.”

The 2015 business plan for the project, attached below, states there are no emissions standards in BC for biomass boilers and that permits are negotiated on a case by case basis with the provincial environment ministry.

The business plan also states “in an ideal combustion environment only carbon dioxide and water vapour would be produced. Biomass boilers aren’t able to achieve an ideal combustion environment, but in a well designed combustion system that allows for sufficient time and turbulence within the combustion chamber, other flue gases can be kept to a minimum.”

The American Lung Association has come out against large-scale woodburning to produce energy.

Nelson environmental consultant Michael Jessen, who is a director of the BC Lung Association, told the Star, “I would be extremely concerned if this proposed plant added even a whiff of additional air pollution to our community.”

Jessen wonders if wood waste will always be available.

“My definition of sustainable is something you can do forever without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.

“(This) is a long-term decision and right now I believe we have to be extremely cautious in committing dollars toward a project that may become a stranded asset in the foreseeable future. I would rather see these dollars being spent reducing our need for energy and developing an energy-conserving consciousness in our residents.”

Carbon emissions

There is an active debate in the energy community worldwide about biomass and its carbon emissions. Some say it is carbon neutral because the burned carbon will be picked up by newly planted trees. Others argue that cycle can take up to 100 years and this long carbon payback time doesn’t address global warming in the shorter term.

There are many details and variables, including whether trees are actually being cut to feed the boilers, how much energy is needed to dry the wood first, how far the wood is transported, and what fuel the wood would be replacing.

Some say biomass in some circumstances can have a carbon footprint higher than coal because it takes more fuel to produce the same amount of energy.

Galbraith says in Nelson’s case the comparison to be made is between burning wood and burning the fuel that currently heats the buildings in question, namely natural gas. She says heating with biomass instead of natural gas would reduce carbon emissions by 1200 tonnes per year.

“Right now the wood waste is going go get burned or sent to a landfill,” she says. “If it is burned it is still going into the atmosphere but we are not capturing any of the heat. If it goes into the landfill it will turn into methane, which is the worst greenhouse gas. We are taking something that would already be going back into the atmosphere and we are creating a useful heat source from it.


Nelson Hydro’s proposed biomass project has a $6-million budget, two-thirds of which would be borrowed through BC’s Municipal Finance Authority with a payback period of 15 years. The rest would come from from grants, and Galbraith says a third of that is already in place with a $700,000 contribution from the federal Green Municipal Fund, a program of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.


District Biomass Energy System

Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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