Yukon considering biomass heat for community schools

The Yukon government is looking into heating three of the territory’s schools using wood biomass.

The Yukon government is looking into heating three of the territory’s schools using wood biomass.

Two requests for qualifications have gone out looking for companies interested in the design, construction and operation of biomass heating systems for schools in Haines Junction and Watson Lake.

A third system is being considered for the school in Teslin. That school is managed by the Teslin Tlingit Council and the government is in talks with the First Nation before issuing a third RFQ.

The three communities were chosen because of their proximity to wooded areas and interest in the forestry sector, said Shane Andre, director of the territory’s Energy Branch.

“We think there’s great opportunities to create a local industry and a local economic benefit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time,” he said.

The requests for qualifications don’t provide any details of what type of biomass unit the government wants to use or how much it is willing to spend.

Those details would come at a later stage after the government has a better idea of what is available, Andre said.

Right now, Johnson Elementary School in Watson Lake spends about $160,000 a year on heating fuel, he said, while St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction and the Teslin Community School spend $70,000 a year and $60,000 a year, respectively.

There is no timeline for when the schools could actually be converted to biomass heat. The two requests for qualifications close in mid-October.

The hope is to have biomass in place before next winter, Andre said.

“We don’t see this happening this heating season but if we have them in place by next fall that would be great.”

The Yukon government has been saying for much of the year that it wants to develop a biomass industry in the territory. In February the government issued its Yukon Biomass Energy Strategy.

There is already a biomass heat unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. To run that, pellets are shipped in from Outside.

The Dawson City wastewater treatment facility has a biomass fuel boiler for heat and uses wood chips that are produced locally.

In March, Whitehorse’s Raven Recycling swapped out its old boiler for a Hargassner biomass system originally developed in Austria. During the colder months it is used to heat the depot’s offices and warehouse.

So far everything is running well, said Stephen Mooney, the director of Yukon College’s cold climate innovation branch, which helped fund the project.

“The Hargassner unit has proven that that little technology, that little unit, can heat a building and offset diesel. That wood was just diverted from the landfill. Think about the wood that is out there around these communities just for FireSmarting,” Mooney said.

Each fall, as part of the FireSmart program, trees are cleared around the territory to help protect communities in the event of a forest fire.

Each year about 200 cords of wood from the FireSmart program are made available to the public, said Amanda Couch, a spokesperson with the Community Services department.

“Unsound and smaller wood and branches are chipped or burnt.”

One of the benefits of the Hargassner unit is that it doesn’t need uniform chips or pellets to function. It will basically burn whatever is thrown into it.

But research has shown the unit works more efficiently if the chips are uniform and have a low moisture content, Mooney said.

The ideal chips contain about 10 to 15 per cent moisture. Doubling the amount of moisture in the wood halves the amount of heat the unit is able to produce, he said.

“As Yukoners, to be successful in the biomass industry, we need to become great chip makers.”

To help get there, the college and the energy solutions centre are planning to run a biomass course outside of Whitehorse sometime this year, he said. The idea is to teach people how to make the best, most efficient chips.

“The challenge with chips, and part of the education in this course, is what type of wood are you harvesting and what is the best chipper for that wood that you’re harvesting.”

A location and date for the course hasn’t been finalized.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com