Last week, the Labour government in Australia moved to change a 2015 regulation classifying woody biomass as a ‘renewable’ source of energy alongside wind and solar.
In dropping biomass from the list of renewables, Australia’s climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, said the change was in step with “strong and longstanding community views” following a public consultation that attracted more than2900 submissions. Environmental groups lauded the decision.
Contrast that decision in Australia with one announced yesterday by the Houston government here in Nova Scotia.
With a stroke of the pen, it has established a new regulation that requires Nova Scotia Power to generate at least 153,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year from biomass for the next three years.
Biomass includes residual or “waste” pulpwood, branches, bark, and wood chips that is the by-product of sawmills or natural disasters such as hurricanes.
The only limit to how much the utility can burn is a financial one. Natural Resources and Renewables minister Tory Rushton says the government is limiting Nova Scotia Power to spending an additional $4 million a year “to avoid further power rate increases” for citizens.
It’s clear from a fuel update the company filed last September with the Utility and Review Board that Nova Scotia Power was planning to significantly ramp up the amount of electricity generated from biomass. The fuel update estimated that between 2022 and 2024 Nova Scotia Power would receive 2,700,000 megawatt hours less hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls than was previously forecast.
This under-delivery means Nova Scotia Power can’t reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from coal and natural gas generating stations until more wind farms and other renewable sources of energy are built or imported.
Meanwhile, unlike Australia, biomass in Nova Scotia and Canada is still classified as ‘renewable’ despite compelling arguments from environmentalists who say clearcutting on privately owned (70% in N.S.) and Crown land means biomass often emits more carbon than burning coal.
A letter to that effect signed by several top climate scientists was presented to world leaders gathered at the biodiversity conference in Montreal this month.
Renewable Energy Minister Tory Rushton defended the move to burn more biomass.
“For us, this is about putting more renewable energy on the system for a short period of time until we can establish more hydro and wind for the long-term,” said Rushton. “ I’m also the minister responsible for Natural Resources so I know there’s no longer a market for pulpwood since Northern Pulp closed. And the residual wood left on the ground after hurricane Fiona creates an opportunity to have money paid for that wood to stay in the province.”
Biomass use to increase 51.7%
On the Port Hawkesbury Paper property, the amount of biomass used to generate electricity over the next two years is forecast to increase a staggering 51.7%. The co-gen boiler that produces steam for the newsprint mill and electricity for the grid is owned by Nova Scotia Power.
In 2020-21, this biomass boiler contributed 138,620 megawatt hours, or about 3% of the total electricity supplied to the provincial grid*.
According to the fuel update Nova Scotia Power filed last September, this forecast increase in biomass burning “is driven by economics and GHG compliance requirements.” In other words, it’s cheaper to buy biomass from saw mills and wood lots than it is to buy coal, and, GHG emissions from coal will cost money under environmental regulations while GHG emissions from biomass don’t even get counted.
“This is a really terrible announcement for the environment, a disaster for the atmosphere and for biodiversity,” said Ray Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, continuing:
The government pretends that burning forest biomass is magically non-carbon emitting based on a fantasy theory that in 100 years, the carbon will be re-absorbed by future trees that may or may not grow, so they don’t need to count biomass emissions at all.
But we don’t have 100 years to wait for that to happen and there is no guarantee that it will.
Biomass is not a climate solution, but it’s being embraced by our government in policy and practice because it’s easy to do (burn trees instead of coal) and it helps the forestry sector with a glut of so called ‘waste wood.’ Its significant negative impacts on the climate and biodiversity are conveniently ignored. It’s a farce, a sick joke at a time when we need real climate solutions.
Brooklyn Power, the 35 MW biomass boiler owned by Emera near Liverpool, has been out of commission since last February, when it was damaged by a winter storm. But Emera says Brooklyn will be back in service by the middle of next month.
On average, Nova Scotia Power plans to buy 12.5 % more electricity from Brooklyn than in the past. In 2020-21, Brooklyn contributed 144,000 megawatt hours of electricity to the grid. The forecast filed in the September fuel update will bump that up to 162,000 megawatt hours for 2023 and 2024.
The biomass plant at Brooklyn was once the most expensive source of electricity for ratepayers and ought to be closed, according to an audit done for the Utility and Review Board by the firm Bates White five years ago. But the old plant that dates from Bowater Mersey days is now relatively less expensive when you factor in the rising price of fossil fuels and the fines associated with carbon pollution.
Rushton considers biomass a short-term “opportunity” for the forestry sector, while environmentalists view it as both a loophole and a wrong-headed choice to deal with climate change.
“Our forests have much more potential and value than to be burned for the generation of electricity,” says Mike Lancaster, the coordinator for a citizen advocacy group called the Healthy Forest Coalition:
Using forest biomass for the generation of electricity is an extremely inefficient use of our forests. Even the best systems generally lose around 80% of the potential energy, running at 20% efficiency.
When sourced from truly ecological-based forestry practices (i.e. no harvesting during the peak of nesting season for birds, no harvests take more than 20% of the forest, etc.), biomass for heating is a better use of our forests. For example, most modern wood stoves get in the range of 65-80% efficiency. Our industry needs an avenue for the byproducts of sawmilling, but using those residuals for local heating would be a better use.
Rushton said burning wood is a better choice than burning coal to generate electricity because carbon emissions from biomass are lower as long as the wood is harvested sustainably.
Rushton said the new regulation outlaws cutting whole trees for biomass and the province is implementing the ecological forestry model on Crown lands, as recommended by the Lahey Report. But he acknowledges that while the province can enforce regulations when it comes to how wood gets harvested on Crown lands, which make up less than 30% of Nova Scotia’s forests, it does not have that authority when it comes to land owned by small woodlot owners and large private companies. They have just been handed a Christmas gift.
* This article has been revised to better describe the biomass situation at Port Hawkesbury.
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