Wood chips versus fossil fuels in Yellowknife

We can expect to see more buildings heated this way in the future.

It’s always fun to visit another northern capital and check in on how our circumpolar friends are doing.

I was recently in Yellowknife, where I learned about its new and award-winning project to heat a whole district of municipal buildings with wood chip pellets. The new system is installed and ready to be fired up for winter.

The project heats five large municipal buildings, including the arena, field house, fire hall and two garages. It replaces fossil fuels with centralized wood-fired heat that is then piped to all the buildings. Experts refer to this kind of thing as biomass district heating.

It’s expected to save over $150,000 per year, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 869 tonnes annually. It will also create additional local jobs once a local pellet factory gets going.

For now, the pellets are from Alberta or British Columbia, where logging mills have lots of surplus wood chips.

District heating is not new. My first encounter with it was one winter in the Soviet Union. There was steam shooting out from cracked pipes under the sidewalk. Our hosts in a giant Russian ferro-concrete apartment building said the residents near where the pipe came in kept their windows open all winter to keep from overheating. Meanwhile, the people at the far end of the building had to wear their coats inside.

Biomass isn’t new either, although some old-timers might be surprised if you told them they’d been heating their cabins with biomass for decades.

What is new, however, is how several big trends have come together to put new momentum behind biomass and district heating. Climate change is forcing us to take more serious action on carbon emissions. Fossil fuels are going to get even more expensive as carbon taxes bite.

There are new and highly sophisticated boilers from advanced manufacturers in Sweden and Germany. Insulated pipes with modern materials are a far cry from old Soviet technology. Advances in manufacturing technology make the pellets cheaper and higher quality than before.

Pioneers in the Yukon are already using biomass heating, including the Teslin Tlingit Council, Raven Recycling and the Whitehorse jail. Yukon experts from places such as the Cold Climate Innovation Centre are advising a range of potential future projects.

Where Yellowknife has earned itself some kudos is for leapfrogging other jurisdictions and investing in a large, highly visible multi-building project in the centre of the capital city.

We can expect to see more buildings heated this way in the future.

But it is unlikely to totally dominate other forms of heating.

Oil and propane have a big installed base of existing users. Fossil fuels are convenient, reliable and often still cheaper, even with a carbon tax in the range planned for Canada ($50 per tonne, which is the equivalent of about 11.6 cents per litre).

Electricity is convenient and minimal additional infrastructure is required since most buildings are already connected to the grid. It’s worth noting that the developers of most new privately constructed condos in Whitehorse are choosing electrical heat, not biomass.

Biomass is also not completely carbon neutral. A Yellowknife official told me that it will take roughly twice as many truck trips to bring the wood chips as would be required for an equivalent amount of heat from oil.

Biomass also raises air quality concerns. As the recent Whitehorse air quality monitoring study showed, we have a significant problem with fine particulate pollution during the winter. This is exactly the kind of pollution that comes from burning wood.

While the latest European boilers have amazing technology to minimize this, it still adds up. And a poorly run facility could belch out the kind of pollution that has measurably negative effects on people with heart and breathing illnesses, especially in Whitehorse with its valley location and inversions. This will be a challenge for health regulators to measure and manage.

A lot will depend on how the current generation of N.W.T. and Yukon projects perform. Will the cost savings materialize, or will making pellets locally be more expensive than hoped? Will the boilers be as reliable as advertised, or will variations in quality of the wood chips and other issues cause downtime? Is more labour needed to operate such a system, compared to a propane boiler for example? And is the air quality of the smoke acceptable?

Heat is so central to living and doing business in the North that it is great to see so much innovation. There’s much to be optimistic about. Hopefully the cost and air-quality emissions data from today’s innovative projects will propel the biomass and district heating concepts even further into the mainstream.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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