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Can bioenergy revive Yukon's forestry industry?

The Yukon's depressed lumber industry could get a boost from the government's new push to turn wood into heat. The first ever Northern Bioenergy Conference next week will lay out what the Energy Solutions Centre and the government's forestry branch see as a surefire opportunity to build bioenergy businesses.

The Yukon’s depressed lumber industry could get a boost from the government’s new push to turn wood into heat.

The first ever Northern Bioenergy Conference next week will lay out what the Energy Solutions Centre and the government’s forestry branch see as a surefire opportunity to build bioenergy businesses and lower people’s energy bills.

“We’ve seen sawmills in the territory come and go,” said Patrick MacDonell, a senior forestry advisor in the Energy, Mines and Resources Department. “The business of producing planks is an iffy business and we’ve seen half of the mills in Canada close in the last few years.”

Treetops, sawdust, branches, bark and tiny branches are all detritus today. But they could - if the price is right - one day heat your home.

“We could provide a profitable line in an iffy business,” said MacDonell. “It could give quite a boost to the industry here.”

And that’s not all. The Yukon is chock-full of wasted wood: Firesmart, road and power line clearing and pine beetle infestations leave plenty of unused energy that could be transformed into wood pellets or chips.

Add the government’s recent promises to lower emissions by cutting down diesel burning in remote communities, and you begin to see what the conference’s organizers are getting excited about.

“This is one of those things where I don’t see any big challenges for the Yukon in relation to other jurisdictions,” said Colin McDowell, director of the Energy Solutions Centre and another of the conference’s planners.

But getting the Yukon hooked on bioenergy does have its hurdles. Some challenges include keeping the price lower than fossil fuels, making sure bioenergy doesn’t impact lumber prices, and measuring particulate matter and carbon emissions.

On the price front, the government says it has done its homework.

Both the new Whitehorse Correctional Centre and the Dawson sewage plant will be installed with bioenergy furnaces.

The Energy Solutions hired an economist, Malcolm Taggard, to compare wood-pellet prices to oil prices for the sewage plant proposal.

And if you look at the life-cycle of a heating system, which includes both up-front capital and operations costs, the wood pellets won out in multiple different economic scenarios.

“It’s economically a no-brainer,” said McDowell.

The centre shared their results with a skeptical property management office, who will be setting up the heating system.

They did their own number crunching with economist Derek Parker.

He looked at scenarios worse than Taggard’s. Parker wondered what would happen if wood prices went up and oil went down.

“The cost lines never cross,” said MacDonell. “Whatever happens, the pellet heating price is always lower than oil.”

Then there’s the issue of bioenergy affecting lumber prices - much the way biofuels can spark a climb in food prices.

But that couldn’t happen here because both lumber and wood chips aren’t competing for the same price, said MacDonell.

The annual allowable cut across the Yukon is 500,000 cubic meters. Two small sawmills in the territory cut about 6,000 cubic meters and another 25,000 cubic meters is cut down for firewood sellers.

“So you have around 30,000 cubic metres being cut and the potential for half a million, so it’s nowhere near (a competition for supply),” said MacDonell.

The bioenergy enthusiasts are still figuring out how to kickstart an industry with little to build on.

“We’ve got to go from zero supply and zero demand and it’s the trick to get them both up to the threshold where they can both operate economically,” said McDowell.

There are a few residential suppliers in Whitehorse and also a few small buildings with pellets. But the Yukon is looking to the Northwest Territories, who’s government is cosponsoring next week’s conference, for help.

A man named Thomas Wunderlin sparked a wood-pellet craze in Yellowknife a few years ago when he proposed attaching a heating system to a school. He could offer the heat at 70 per cent the cost of oil and the government jumped on board.

Word soon spread and building owners around town got on the bandwagon.

There are now around 18 commercially sized heating systems in Yellowknife, said McDowell.

The Yukon could even get a bigger punch out of bioenergy because we could make wood pellets here. The Northwest Territories currently imports them.

The biggest problem with bioenergy are the optics of emissions.

“People still have this fear from the ‘70s and ‘80s that a dense area like Riverdale is going to be a terrible place to be if you fill it with wood stoves,” said McDowell.

The wood-pellet stove technology has improved dramatically over the last few decades, he said.

A brand new EPA-approved pellet stove can be 1,000 times cleaner in terms of particulate matter than a common RSF-brand stove from the 1970s.

But while the particulate matter issue has progressed, there’s still some debate over carbon emissions.

Burning wood puts carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect. And while it takes millions of years for carbon that’s been spewed into the air through fossil fuels to end up back under the earth, wood has a carbon cycle of around 50 years.

But when the world is possibly facing global warming of one to four degrees in the next 50 years, should we be putting any carbon in the atmosphere at all?

For the Energy Solutions Centre, it’s a question of pragmatism.

“We want to encourage choices that are as easy on the environment as possible,” said McDowell.

The status quo - oil and propane - are dirtier than wood, and the cleanest energies - hydro, solar, wind and geothermal - haven’t proven to be as viable in the Yukon, according to the centre.

“From our branch, we see some great opportunities around wood in the Yukon because we have it,” said McDowell.

“The technology has changed and it’s time to get into this,” he said.

There are already 130 people registered for next week’s conference, which runs May 26 and May 27 at the Yukon Convention Centre.

The first day of the conference will be an introduction to the industry. That will be followed the next day by presentations on government initiatives. In the afternoon, they’ll cover recent success stories from Alaska, where a First Nation’s corporation is putting pellet stoves into Juneau buildings, followed by presentations from British Columbia and Yellowknife.

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