Lang’s energy solution is beneath his nose

If Archie Lang has any idea that, deep in the bowels of Yukon College, a wondrous furnace sits that can consume almost anything, he certainly didn't let it on during a public meeting on Tuesday.

If Archie Lang has any idea that, deep in the bowels of Yukon College, a wondrous furnace sits that can consume almost anything, he certainly didn’t let it on during a public meeting on Tuesday.

The machine in question uses gasification – the process of burning fuel at such a high temperature that almost no greenhouse emissions are produced – to produce heat.

At the launch of the Yukon Party’s annual community tour, Lang enthused at length over how similar technology is being used in Charlottetown, PEI, to turn municipal garbage and sawmill waste into electricity.

Charlottetown’s gasifier displaces the burning of 7.7 million litres of fuel annually and heats more than 80 buildings, including the city’s two hospitals.

Seeing the gasifier in action during a visit was “quite enlightening,” said Lang. “It does work.”

Lang offered this in response to a question by Whitehorse resident Rod Taylor, who is excited enough by the potential of gasification in the Yukon that he’s considering getting into the business.

So he asked Lang, who is minister of Community Services, whether the government would be interested in using the technology.

“We’re very interested in looking into it,” Lang replied.

What was strange about this exchange is that, at no point, did Lang mention that the Yukon has its own gasifier.

It has sat unused for 21 years, thanks to a mixture of technological hiccups and bureaucratic bungling.

The college gasifier is designed to be fed wood chips, although it’s possible that the design could be tweaked so that it could also consume garbage.

But even if it isn’t rigged up to eat garbage, the gasifier could potentially solve a heap of energy problems.

It could reduce demand on Yukon’s strained hydroelectricity system.

It could curb greenhouse gas emissions.

It could save money, as wood chips are a cheaper alternative to diesel and heating oil.

It could be fed beetle-killed wood, which may otherwise rot and go to waste.

And it could also provide a market for waste wood, helping shore up profits for Yukon wood workers.

But for any of this to happen, someone first needs to make the thing work. And fixing it won’t be cheap.

The gasifier could be up and running for $765,000, according to the report produced in May by Canmet, a division of Natural Resources Canada. That’s up from an earlier estimate, made in 2005, of $600,000.

The device should pay for itself after about six years of operation by displacing the need to burn costly oil to heat the college during the winter, when cheap hydro-power is unavailable to the institution.

The college currently burns about $1 million in diesel fuel annually.

But no money has been earmarked in the territory’s 2009-10 budget to fix the machine, said Robert Collins, the territory’s point-man for the gasifier.

Nor has a decision even been made as to whether it should be refurbished or not, he said.

Yukon’s fluidized-bed gasifier was installed, probably at great expense, when the new campus was built in 1988.

It’s only worked during experiments. It’s never seen daily use.

Reports vary as to why this is so. The machine’s electronic guts never worked right, according to government reports.

But Albert Rock, a Whitehorse-based inventor who helped start up the device in the mid-1980s, blames a brick-wall of bureaucracy.

Officials would kowtow to contractors rather than ensure work was completed, and resist changes that would disrupt their own routines, according to him.

As a result, the machine was fed green wood chips that, predictably, produced a lot of smoke and little heat.

Rather than hold a contractor to account for not providing chips up to specification, territorial officials instead decided the gasifier didn’t work right, says Rock.

There was a slew of other problems, by Rock’s account: parts of the gasifier was never correctly assembled, exhaust ducts were never sealed, and one subcontractor screwed up the machine’s electronics.

But there’s no doubt the machine works. In 2005, Outside eggheads tested the machine and found the device worked if they bypassed the electronic controls and twiddled knobs by hand.

In fairness to Lang, handling of the gasifier falls under the Department of Energy’s subsidiary, the Energy Solutions Centre. And then-energy minister Brad Cathers wasn’t at the meeting.

Premier Dennis Fentie, who initially fielded Taylor’s question, didn’t give any hints that the territory had a gasifier, either. He was the one who referred Taylor’s question to Lang.

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