Feeding the Fire: Biomass and Nova Scotia’s Race for the Bottom

– by Linda Pannozz0, March 4, 2016, Halifax Examiner

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Photo: Jamie Simpson

It all sounded so good.

About a month ago, Nova Scotia Power (NSP) announced that it “set a renewable energy record,” and was moving “toward a lower carbon future.” In 2015 nearly 27 per cent of the electricity generated in the province came from renewable sources – up from only nine per cent eight years ago – and exceeded the legislated requirement of 25 per cent. Most of it came from wind, hydro, and tidal, and about three per cent of all power came from burning biomass – organic material from the forest, the majority in the form of trees. That might not sound like much but as NSP claims to have rapidly transitioned to renewables “faster than any other utility in Canada,” biomass helped it get there.

But as I looked deeper into these numbers and into reports of biomass harvesting ever since the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant opened in 2013, that fuzzy, warm feeling I was getting about using renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and still being able to power my electric milk frother was quickly being replaced by the realization that we’re being fed a bill of goods.

I soon learned that the exercise of meeting targets was more a numbers game — and in this case like shuffling the deck chairs — than an honest attempt at staving off the worst of climate change. I also learned that cutting trees for biomass is part of Nova Scotia’s “renewable energy” bundle into the foreseeable future and is set to increase.

The problem is, calling biomass “renewable” in Nova Scotia is about as inconsistent as giving up liberty for freedom. It’s basically a lie and in the context of how forestry is done in this province it’s about as Orwellian as you can get.

Biomass Starts Here

According to NSP, biomass allows them to supply Nova Scotia with renewable energy “even when the wind isn’t blowing.” That’s because the plant is a “must run” facility, running 24/7, providing what are called “firm renewables” to the grid. According to Catherine Abreu, the Energy Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre (EAC), the biomass facility was designated a “must run” because the Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) mill next door needed the steam to operate. Recall, this is the pulp and paper mill that just four years ago received a $125 million aid package from Darrell Dexter’s NDP government, on top of the $37 million it spent to keep the bankrupt NewPage mill in “hot idle” while the they found a new buyer. Well, that rebooted paper mill now under new ownership extracts about 25 per cent of the steam produced at the boiler for its own purposes, to keep its energy costs down and its business case viable.

“So there are times when the electricity demand in the province is low enough that coal stations get ramped down and renewable sources get turned off. So wind power gets dumped,” Abreu says. “NSP actually makes the decision not to integrate the power being generated by wind farms into the grid because there’s nowhere to send it.”

But the biomass plant never stops burning wood.

Given the close ties between the biomass plant in Point Tupper and PHP it was a surprise to hear how NSP plans to meet the upcoming 2020 target of 40 per cent renewables. In its January news release it announced it would do this by increasing wind, delivering hydro electricity from Muskrat Falls and by increasing biomass. It said that in 2020 biomass would account for seven per cent of the electricity generated, more than double what it is now. The projected increase in biomass is based on a number of assumptions, one of which is that more wood will be cut, but another is that by 2020 NSP assumes that the paper mill will be “offline,” or to put it bluntly, shut down.

So without a mill to extract steam there would be more steam available to generate so-called “renewable” electricity to the grid — an emission reduction on paper but not in reality. Mill or no mill, NSP assumes that more forests will be needed to meet the 2020 target. When the plant is running at full capacity, producing 60 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 homes, it requires the input of 50 truckloads of wood a day or 730,000 tonnes a year. That’s a lot of wood, and the pressure to cut night and day is real.

From the very start, everyone sensed that pressure like that doesn’t support good forestry practices. If biomass was going to be used for electricity in this province, and indeed qualify as being renewable, there had to be some guarantees. In 2009, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler and Michelle Adams led the “stakeholder consultation” process for a Renewable Energy Strategy for Nova Scotia to provide options to help meet the province’s renewable energy targets. They recommended that biomass harvesting should not proceed without the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) developing “regulations outlining the highest possible standards expected for sustainable forestry practices as it applies to biomass harvesting for the purpose of energy generation.” They said it was needed in order to “provide guarantees on ecological integrity.”

But according to Matt Miller, the Forestry Program Coordinator at the EAC, no such standards were ever created. He says that in 2010 John MacDonell, the Minister of the Department of Natural Resources in the NDP government made the commitment to “prohibit” the removal of whole trees from a forest site but later the government backtracked and backed off on wording. “Just before the 2013 election they announced they were going to go forward with the prohibition but the consultation period ran beyond the election, which they lost,” he explains. Currently the only regulations that govern harvest practices are the Wildlife Habitat and Watercourse Protection Regulations, neither of which adequately addresses biomass or whole-tree harvesting.

Around the same time that MacDonell was advocating for the prohibition at the DNR, hearings were underway at the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB), where NSP was asking for permission to undertake the $200 million biomass plant — a capital investment that would be passed on to Nova Scotia ratepayers. NSPs latest proposal was similar to the one rejected in 2009, but this time they promised an additional 150 jobs. Despite concerns raised about the prospect of more clearcutting to feed the boiler, it was approved.

For its part, NSP — the largest purchaser of biomass in the province — said that only stem wood would be used and that the tops and branches would be left to rot “because they’re necessary to restore nutrients in the soil.” But in the absence of any rules governing biomass harvesting, these kinds of standards are difficult to enforce across the board.

The EAC says that given this regulatory vacuum “biomass destruction is entirely predictable” and that whole tree harvesting has not only driven practices to an all-time low, threatening future forest productivity and resulting in a further loss of crucial habitat for forest-dependent species and the demise of value-added hardwood businesses, but it’s probably not even making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions — all subjects we’ll return to.

But one thing no one predicted is that the pressure to feed the boiler could be resulting in a practice far worse than clear cutting.

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