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Raven bets on biomass

The backyard of Whitehorse's Raven Recycling is home to the territory's latest European transplant. The recycling depot has swapped out its old boiler for one originally developed in Austria.

The backyard of Whitehorse’s Raven Recycling is home to the territory’s latest European transplant.

The recycling depot has swapped out its old boiler for one originally developed in Austria. The fire engine-red contraption in the backyard lives on a steady diet of old wood pallets, which it uses to create heat.

It’s the latest pilot project, funded in part by Yukon College’s cold climate innovation branch, attempting to bring more biomass heating to the Yukon.

“We’ve got a lot of biomass,” says director Stephen Mooney.

“I can take you places 10 minutes from this spot and show you huge mounds of trees just rotting that could be chipped up this summer and stockpiled for biomass units.”

It took two hours in December to grind about 300 pallets into 21 tons of wood chunks. That’s hopefully enough for the Hargassner woodchip boiler to heat the warehouse and offices for about a year.

“Which is not actually that many,” says Raven Recycling’s Danny Lewis. “We have about a third of that piled up already since we finished chipping.”

What’s left after grinding has no consistent shape or size. It looks more like a family of angry beavers went to town shredding any wood in their path.

A magnet is run through the pile to help yank out any stray nails and the shards of wood are dumped into a room adjacent to the boiler.

If everything goes as planned, that’s the last time a person needs to touch the wood.

Metal arms spin in the adjacent room pulling the wood crumbs towards what is essentially a giant corkscrew. That carries the wood to its last destination, to be burned in the boiler.

“In the world of wood chips, these are ugly chips,” Mooney says as he reaches towards the slowly spinning screw and pulls out different sized chunks.

“These aren’t pretty chips. But that’s the reason this boiler is here, this boiler can take ugly chips.”

The project will track the type of wood that’s used, its moisture levels and the amount of heat created. It’s all in an effort to prove these contraptions are viable options for the North and to discover what wood chips work best.

The system is powered by gasification. That means that heated wood, when mixed with the right amount of oxygen, vapourizes to become synthetic gas.

A computer controls the flow of wood and air into the burner, since different types of wood need different amounts of oxygen to burn most efficiently.

The project is the brainchild of Chris Schmidt, who has spent 33 years working as a technician installing boilers.

Originally from Europe where boilers like this are much more commonplace, Schmidt said he spent years looking for a way to bring a project home to the Yukon.

It was only two or three years ago that this style of boiler was approved by the Canadian Standards Agency.

There are about 12 to 14 similar units in Canada right now, Schmidt says. He was trained on one in Quebec.

The cost of cutting, crushing and burning wood is much more consistent than oil prices. Wood is also found much closer to home.

“There’s a lot of biomass to use, which also keeps the jobs here, because somebody has to cut it, somebody has to shred it, somebody has to move it, somebody has to monitor it,” he says.

Schmidt says the biggest obstacle to convince people to consider using a boiler like this is the high up-front costs. Just the boiler itself cost $55,000 and thousands more to install, he says.

Lewis says Raven’s fuel bill has been anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Now they anticipate about $3,000 to $5,000 a year in labour costs to help gather and process wood to feed the boiler.

“What I’m hoping is that people will get aware of it and consider it as an option to heat buildings,” Schmidt says.

The Yukon government released its biomass strategy earlier this year. As part of that strategy the government has agreed to consider using biomass whenever it plans a new building or a retrofit of an old one.

A government spokesperson says officials are looking at a handful of projects that could use biomass, but no decisions have been made yet.

Approximately 13,000 cords of wood are harvested annually in Yukon, mostly from beetle-kill wood in the Haines Junction area, to heat homes and buildings. That’s about 17 per cent of Yukon’s total consumption of energy for heat, according to the government.

Schmidt envisions a time when these kinds of boilers exist in all of Yukon’s communities as a way to give new life to waste wood.

Mooney says he’d eventually like to look into systems that not only provide heat, but also electricity. The ones he’s considering haven’t been approved in Canada yet.

If that does happen, Yukon College has a hole in its basement that might be a good fit.

When the new campus was built in 1988 it came with a giant gasifier. It was billed as a furnace that could eat almost anything, from scrap wood to garbage, but it never really worked right.

The technology was new. The machine’s serial number was 001, Mooney says.

He says the feedstock was never consistent and someone had to be there at all times to make sure things kept running.

“It could have been a good thing, but it wasn’t given the due diligence that it needed.”

When Mooney started his job five years ago, a report claimed the machine could be fixed, but would cost “millions,” he says.

It wasn’t worth the money and the system was pulled out.

But the industry has grown since then. Now there are about 70,000 of these kinds of systems across the globe, according to Schmidt.

Contact Ashley Joannou at