Nova Scotia Biomass Power Generation
The forests of Nova Scotia are more than trees and a source of fibre or structural wood. They provide habitat for a large variety of wild animals and plants, and they create a diversity of natural environments. When trees are cut, the forest ecosystem is destroyed, and the landscape is altered for decades. Regeneration depends on how the “harvesting” of trees is done. Decisions to cut forests should not be done for economic reasons alone.
Nature Nova Scotia promotes saving forests and rebuilding them to their former health to once again provide wildlife habitat and valuable forest products that are unavailable in today's highly degraded forests.
In Nova Scotia, biomass was a term once used for “waste” wood, such as sawdust and bark, that accumulated at mill sites where lumber was being produced. Now, the definition is much broader.
Using wood left over from manufacturing processes is one thing, but clearcutting and full-tree chipping (leaving only roots) of standing forests to provide biomass-generated electricity is the issue here.
Nature doesn't waste. Tree branches, roots, and tops are best left where the trunks are harvested, so their wealth of organic matter can break down slowly to replenish forest soils. Chipping and trucking it away depletes the soil and diminishes the nutrients available for future growth on the site.
Biomass is currently being used to produce electricity in two locations in Nova Scotia. Other biomass plants are also being planned or built. The laws of thermodynamics make the conversion of wood to electricity very inefficient – in the Point Tupper case, Nova Scotia Power Inc. (NSPI) projected a 21.5% electrical efficiency with relatively dry wood. In fact, their wood is kept outside, uncovered and wet, so efficiencies may be lower.
The Point Tupper biomass plant is too large. It is being fed by 50–60 tractor trailer loads of wood daily, for a total of about 650,000 tonnes annually, or roughly 100 “wet tonnes” per hour.
Operating the Point Tupper biomass plant is costing NSPI ratepayers an extra $6–8 million a year.1 This is due in part to “must run” stipulations that force NSPI to supply heat for operating the pulp mill next door. This amounts to another Port Hawkesbury Paper subsidy and a violation of the US-Canada trade agreement. NSPI is forced to operate the biomass plant when cheaper energy sources, like natural gas or Quebec hydro, are available and savings could be passed along to customers.
Biomass is a low-priced commodity. Clearcutting and full tree chipping are the cheapest harvest
methods to acquire forest biomass.
Biomass plants have increased clearcutting and full-tree chipping in Nova Scotia.2 Young trees and saplings in regenerating stands only 20–40 years old are being full-tree chipped. Trees are cut before they become mature and can realize their wildlife potential and their economic potential as sawlogs. Clearcutting usually means that less valuable tree species regenerate on sites with reduced productivity. This is due to soil nutrient depletion and the processes of forest succession. Approximately 40% of the operable forest in Nova Scotia has been clearcut in the last 25 years.3
Wildlife habitats, forest ecosystems, and waterways are being severely degraded by this kind of forestry and biomass removal under the guise of renewable energy. It is not sustainable.
Research at St. FX and Dalhousie Universities and elsewhere shows that clearcut soils release carbon. This has not been factored into the carbon picture, and further strains the provincial government position that this form of biomass is “green” energy.4
Recent studies of biomass plants operating in the United States equate their carbon emissions with those of coal-fired facilities.5
The Point Tupper biomass operation, which chips logs and/or ships them elsewhere, is creating a scarcity of hardwood in Nova Scotia. A further result of this operation is that manufacturers of value-added hardwood products, including Finewood Flooring and River's Bend, have either been forced to close or are hard-pressed to continue.6
Firewood prices have skyrocketed.7 Exclusive government agreements with large forest companies are partly responsible for this trend and for the demise of value-added hardwood processing.
In January 2016, NSPI announced that it was going to expand its biomass content from the current 2.8% to 7% by 2020, without stipulating how much of this would be wood-generated.
Harvesting of standing forests by clearcutting or full-tree chipping for the purpose of electrical energy production should cease.
Crown (public) land management should set high standards that offer examples of good stewardship for private land owners. Publicly owned forests should not be further degraded by harvests for low-value commodities. Lower-quality wood could be removed to improve the quality of the trees that remain. Any harvesting of hardwoods on Crown land for biomass burning should cease.
Biomass burning of wood for electrical energy should terminate unless overall energy efficiencies are equal to or greater than 50%.*
The biomass plants at Point Tupper and Brooklyn should be decommissioned as soon as possible, unless they are modified to meet the minimum efficiency rate of 50%.*
Any new biomass plant using wood to produce electricity must meet or exceed the 50% efficiency threshold, must not use clearcut or full-tree chipping methods, and must leave tree branches, roots and tops on harvest sites.
* The 50% figure was a minimum used by the State of Massachusetts, USA, as an eventual stepping stone to achieving 60% efficiencies. Those numbers are based on a Manomet study that determined, in the context of Massachusetts, what efficiency was required to attain carbon benefits relative to a modern natural gas fired electricity generator. Manomet was hired to do the science, then the politicians put in a science-backed regulation.
1. Biomass plant mess should trump rate plan. Rachel Brighton, Chronicle Herald, Nov. 14, 2015.
2. Global Forest Change Map – University of Maryland
3. Are We Getting Value for Our Forest Products?” Minga O'Brien, Victoria Standard, Feb. 2-15, 2015 pg 5.
4. Forest Biomass Energy Policy in the Maritime Provinces: Accounting for Science.http://www.ecelaw.ca/forest-biomass-energy-policy-in-the-maritime-provin…
5. Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal. http://www.pfpi.net/trees-trash-and-toxics-how-biomass-energy-has-become…
6. No hardwood, no business. Chronicle Herald, February 18, 2015.http://thechronicleherald.ca/business/1269942-no-hardwood-no-business-ri…
7. Firewood shortage in Nova Scotia sparks rise in prices. Chronicle Herald, September 15, 2014.http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/1236623-firewood-shortage-in-nov…
Bob Bancroft, President, Nature Nova Scotia