Column: Is using forest land for primary bioenergy production a wise choice?

Most people would agree that using residual wood for bioenergy is a good choice but what if green fibre is grown on forest land?

Most people would agree that using residual wood for bioenergy is a good choice but what if green fibre is grown on forest land with the primary purpose of converting it to some form of energy (pellets, syngas or electricity)?

In Ben Parfitt’s 2010 paper on bioenergy he has a section on “Wood as energy: Promises and Pitfalls,” which reviews the various options.

With the pine beetle epidemic in B.C., it was perhaps inevitable that the province would seize upon bioenergy as key to revitalizing its forest industry.

The mountain pine beetle epidemic was one of the main reasons for the government to initiate the “Call for Power” by BC Hydro in which the Crown Corporation sought expressions of interest from private power producers interested in utilizing wood or biomass as a new energy source.

The first four projects approved did not require companies to log more trees, but rather to use wood waste that already existed at sawmill and pulp and paper facilities or that could be retrieved from wood left behind at logging sites.

Three of the four projects involved existing pulp and paper facilities, participants in an industry that is both a major power user and power generator.

In total, BC Hydro said, the four projects combined would generate 579 gigawatt hours of new electricity annually, enough to power more than 52,000 homes.

In March 2009, BC Hydro announced its second Call for Power. The call again focused on wood as an energy source. Only this time, the wood could come from new forest tenures the province made available for the express purpose of converting “wood waste” to power.

This made the second call significantly more controversial. It implied that logging might occur directly in support of energy production.

This marked a radical departure from the norm, wherein the “fallout” or by-product from sawmills — wood chips and sawdust — became the feedstock for the pulp and paper industry, wood pellet producers, wood boilers, and the occasional wood-fired electrical generating facility. It raised the alarm of the province’s pulp and paper industry, which worried about increased competition for finite wood supplies.

Environmental groups also expressed concern. Would bioenergy producers start logging healthy, green forests to meet their needs? Finally, First Nations expressed strong reservations about the call and its potential to further alienate lands and resources to which they laid claim.

For the time being, the Ministry of Forests seems to be heeding those concerns.

Aware that the beetle-killed trees it promotes as a raw material source for the bioenergy industry are finite, the ministry is only offering time-limited rights of access to the dead trees?

There are many who question the practicality and expense of burning wood to make electricity especially in large expensive facilities that require fibre guarantees. At far less cost, more flexible clean burning technologies are available to burn wood for home and business heating purposes and are  increasingly common in local retail stores.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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