Energy security, biomass, and Atlantic Canada

Access to reliable and secure sources of reasonably priced energy is an essential component of a nation's well-being and prosperity. The need for policies to ensure national or regional energy security has become more apparent as the number of energy exporting countries continues to decline and energy prices climb ever higher.

Achieving energy security is not an easy task for a net energy importing country:

It is tempting to assume that with all its energy resources, such as Churchill Falls (North America's second largest hydroelectric facility), Hibernia (Canada's principal source of non-synthetic crude oil), and the Sable Offshore Energy Project, Atlantic Canada has achieved energy security. Sadly, this is not the case.

Like most industrialized regions of the world, Atlantic Canada relies heavily on two energy sources: refined petroleum products (such as kerosene, gasoline, diesel, fuel oils, and jet fuel) and electricity (generated from petroleum products, coal, hydroelectricity, nuclear, and natural gas). In 2004, Atlantic Canada used over 700 petajoules (PJ) of energy (a petajoule is the energy found in about 30 million litres of gasoline); of this, about 72 percent came from refined petroleum products, 16 percent from coal, 8 percent from hydroelectricity and nuclear, with the remainder from fuels such as natural gas.

Together, petroleum and coal supply almost 90 percent of Atlantic Canada's energy demand: petroleum comes from Hibernia, Venezuela, the North Sea, and the Middle East, while coal is shipped from Venezuela and Columbia. These suppliers should give anyone living in Atlantic Canada pause for thought, as none can be considered reliable over the long term: Hibernia and the North Sea have reached or are near their peak production, Columbia and Venezuela are experiencing internal and external political problems, and the Middle East is volatile.

To make matters worse, if energy shortages occur because of supply failures or price spikes, western Canadian energy sources, such as oil or natural gas, will be unable to reach Atlantic Canada because there are no major energy corridors connecting this region to the rest of Canada.

Addressing the energy security issue in Atlantic Canada will require the region to reduce its reliance on imported energy, in part through energy efficiency measures, but also by increasing the use of indigenous, renewable energy sources, notably solar, wind, tidal, and biomass. Of these energy sources, biomass is by far the most flexible since it can be produced from the agricultural or forestry sectors and any energy products can come from dedicated crops or waste material.

Biomass has another advantage over other renewables in that it can offer a wider range of energy products. For example, it can be combusted to produce heat, electricity, or both through cogeneration. Biomass can also be gasified to replace natural gas for use in gas turbines for cogeneration. Finally, and to some most importantly, biomass can be liquefied to make transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Without careful planning, the advantages that biomass offers in helping Atlantic Canada achieve energy security may result in problems ranging from unsustainable logging practices to soil degradation to disease prone monocultures - all issues that have been discussed at length in Atlantic Forestry over the past year.

Our research has shown that if biomass and other renewables are to make a significant contribution to regional energy security, it will be necessary to change the way in which energy is both produced and consumed. For example, rather than relying exclusively on biomass for electrical generation, biomass cogeneration plants should operate in parallel with, for example, wind farms, producing electricity only when the wind needs to be supplemented. Hybrid wind-biomass facilities are an example of an efficient means of generating electricity from biomass, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At present, there are no provincial or regional energy security policies in place to protect Atlantic Canadians from unexpected shortfalls in energy supplies or a rapid rise in world energy prices. Achieving energy security will mean the development of policies that reduce regional demand for energy, replace imported energy with indigenous energy sources, and change the way we heat, feed, and move ourselves. This transition will take many years, but it will be central to maintaining and improving the well-being and prosperity of Atlantic Canadians.

Atlantic Forestry Review - November 2006