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Beetle wood power
Spurred by the pine beetle scourge, initiatives tapping into the biomass-to-energy opportunities—including producing power and wood pellets—are quickly coming into focus in the BC Interior.

By Jim Stirling

The pellet plant at Canfor’s sawmill in Houston, BC (above). The BC Interior is seeing more activity in pellet plants, with a new $15 million plant in Prince George and other plants in the planning stages.

There’s something different going on in the forests of the British Columbia Interior and it represents good news. The forests will continue to produce feedstock for high quality lumber production. But surplus wood fibre can—and is—supporting other industry and endeavours. One endeavour that has captured the imagination and stimulated initiative is using wood residue as a sustainable source for producing green energy.                                   

The pine beetle scourge, the US housing market collapse, the high Canadian dollar, increasing costs, and a desire to diversify have all conspired to bring these biomass possibilities into focus. Fossil fuel contributions to greenhouse gases and climate change have elevated alternative energy sources into a green theme of global proportion. Future historians may identify these factors in combination— accompanied by necessary legislative reform— as significant a trigger for structural changes in the BC forest industry as the utilization of wood chips to feed the pulp and paper sector.                                   

These forces of change have increased interest in and expansion of the wood pellet manufacturing industry in the BC Interior. The industry’s been around for years. And while wood pellets as a viable energy source have been a hard sell at home until recently, that’s been counterbalanced by an appreciation of the product in export markets.                                   

Pacific BioEnergy, a private company, has invested about $15 million in a new pellet manufacturing plant. The Prince George facility’s design incorporates sophisticated pollution control systems. And, explains Scott Folk, Pacific BioEnergy’s chief executive officer, the company is pursuing a number of innovative process improvements within the plant.                 

Pinnacle Pellet Inc, is a major player in the regional industry with plants in Quesnel, Williams Lake, Armstrong and Houston. The latter plant was in partnership with Canfor’s Houston sawmill and uses planer shavings and sawdust generated by the mill to manufacture the pellets. Pinnacle Pellet has announced an ambitious new agreement with the Pioneer Family Timber Partnership. At its core is the acquisition of four, 10-year non-replaceable licences with a combined timber volume of about one million cubic metres, primarily in the Quesnel and Vanderhoof areas.                                   

It’s early days still, but work on a detailed development plan is underway, confirms Leroy Reitsma, Pinnacle Pellet’s senior vice president. The intention is for Pinnacle to design and operate the pellet plants, necessitating an expansion of the Williams Lake plant and an investment of $15 million in a new plant north of Quesnel. The Pioneer Family group, with extensive experience in timber harvesting and log home construction, will undertake the logging and trucking functions or contract out portions of the work.                                   

The partnership’s new licences were held by TallOil Canada Inc, in association with Swedish partners. They originated in 2005 as mountain pine beetle salvage licences with the intent of exporting high density wood pellets to Europe. TallOil’s most recent plans called for the construction of three pellet plants in the BC Interior at a cost of $30 million each.                 

Rumours abound about other pellet manufacturing plants being planned by existing sawmills to diversify product lines, reduce fossil fuel use and contribute to improved wood fibre utilization. Wood-fired power plants are also generating new waves of attention. The wood residues for the plants are either produced by sawmills or expected to come increasingly from growing volumes left in the bush after logging beetle-killed and infested wood for lumber production. To that end, BC forests minister Rich Coleman should, by the time this is published, have fleshed out a plan to encourage companies and use the wood through new long-term tenures.                                   

The use of wood biomass ties in with the BC government’s drive to have the province become energy self sufficient. Through Crown corporation, BC Hydro, calls have been made for clean, green, sustainable energy-producing proposals. Canfor Pulp is examining its options of using wood residues to produce power for BC Hydro’s grid. Canfor completed a co-generation plant in Prince George in 2006. First Nations groups are also actively investigating co-gen plants of their own. The Suskwa Chiefs have a $25 million plan for construction of a wood-fired co-gen plant near Hazelton.

The wood residue for pellet plants and wood-fired power plants—in addition to coming from sawmills—is expected to be sourced from growing volumes of wood left in the bush after harvesting beetle-killed timber.

Pristine Power, a Calgary-based company, has announced plans for two $40 million energy plants using sawmill-generated wood residues and roadside logging debris. The first is proposed for Cheslatta Forest Products, on Ootsa Lake in central BC, and the second at West Chilcotin Forest Products at Anahim Lake, about 300 kilometres west of Williams Lake.                 

Both proposed plants would use gasification technology developed by Pristine’s strategic partner, Nexterra Energy of Vancouver, and both require agreements with BC Hydro. The West Chilcotin and Cheslatta mills are joint ventures between local First Nations, community groups and Carrier Forest Products Ltd, of Prince George. Pristine has plans for other relatively small-scale energy plants in the BC Interior fired by wood fibre.                                   

Brian McCloy, of B W McCloy & Associates, took part in a recent natural resources forum in Prince George and outlined independent producer Pristine Power’s activities. He says the Pristine/ Nexterra plants require long-term fibre supply agreements with sawmills and First Nations.                                   

Locations along transportation corridors are chosen, away from existing pulp mills, and the focus is on sawmills that are still operating beehive burners. The power plants are in the 10 megawatt range. McCloy says benefits for the mills include a new source of energy while weaning off natural gas; new jobs; reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; closures of beehive burners; and reduction in roadside burning. He says he suspects the more efficient power plants will also contribute a better lumber recovery factor, additional revenue and extended sawmill life.