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Government pushes wood heat plan

The Yukon Wood Products Association is pleased that the territorial government has a plan to encourage more wood burning for heat in the territory.

The Yukon Wood Products Association is pleased that the territorial government has a plan to encourage more wood burning for heat in the territory.

“It’s the most positive thing we’ve seen out of them,” said executive director Myles Thorp in an interview this week.

The Yukon government is currently consulting on its draft biomass energy strategy.

Biomass energy is a fancy term for burning organic material for heat or power. In the Yukon, it basically means wood heat.

Extensive wood burning has a reputation for causing air quality issues, but modern furnaces and stoves have made the practice much cleaner.

Burning wood does release carbon into the atmosphere, but because forests capture carbon as they grow, using wood for fuel is considered carbon neutral over the long run if forests are sustainably harvested.

The wood products association usually has a membership of between 15 and 20 companies, most of whom are firewood cutters, said Thorp.

Overall in the territory, there are about 60 companies in the forest industry, including woodcutters, a couple wood distributors and a few small sawmills, he said.

The industry’s focus is on providing wood locally as a fuel for heating, said Thorp.

“We’re not looking for the big home run. We’re looking for the things that we can do here.”

The best opportunity for expansion is into production of wood chips for modern, efficient furnaces, he said.

That industry could be competitive with compressed wood pellets shipped from northern B.C. and Alberta, if there were enough of a market, said Thorp.

Currently in the Yukon there are two pieces of public infrastructure that use biomass heat.

The Whitehorse Correctional Centre ships wood pellets from Outside for its furnace.

And the Dawson City wastewater treatment facility uses wood chips that come from the waste products of a local sawmill to heat the building.

The territory has also had failed experiments in large-scale biomass fuel in the past.

A furnace designed to eat wood, garbage and just about anything else at Yukon College was installed in 1988 but never really worked right, and was decommissioned.

A furnace at Elijah Smith Elementary School that could burn both oil and wood suffered the same fate.

Shane Andre, director of Yukon’s energy branch, said the technology has improved vastly since then.

“There are a lot of legacy-type biomass projects that were tried in the past. There’s so many benefits to biomass technology, that throughout history we’ve dabbled in this space. But I think right now we’re coming into an era where the technology is really good.”

The government expects to try more pilot projects with new infrastructure, although it has not committed to any building in particular at this point, he said.

The draft strategy proposes that the government also continue to provide rebates for Yukoners who buy efficient wood furnaces for their homes that burn logs, chips or pellets.

It also proposes to facilitate the development of the local wood product industry, and ensure that forests are harvested sustainably.

“I think our forest management branch has done really an excellent job of working with communities and First Nations to develop forest management plans,” said Andre.

“We have such a huge forest resource that we really take advantage of a very small component of right now. It’s like 0.002 per cent of our forest resource that we currently harvest for biomass production.”

That’s just a tenth of what burns naturally through forest fires each year, he said.

The Yukon government will accept feedback on the draft strategy through June 26. Visit the Energy, Mines and Resources website for more information.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at