Wood pellets: Another colonial export

Over the past 12 to 18 months, the volatility in world energy prices, coupled with instability in the world’s financial markets, has made many Nova Scotians aware of the precarious state of energy security in the province. As the majority of homes are being heated with imported oil or electricity (generated primarily from imported coal), the one energy service that is the poster-child of Nova Scotia’s energy security dilemma is residential space heating.

The amount of energy required to heat a household is independent of the fuel source. For example, a typical Nova Scotian house requires about 70 gigajoules of energy to meet its space heating requirements. This is equivalent to about 2,500 litres of home heating fuel (using a medium-efficiency oil-furnace) or roughly 19.5 MWh of electricity.

Any energy service can have its energy security improved by the application of the three ‘R’s: review, reduce, and replace. In the case of residential space heating, a review would identify the state of existing and potential energy supplies and infrastructure, while the reduction would be a combination of measures, from lowering the thermostat to upgrading the building envelope with additional insulation or new windows. The third ‘R’, would require the consumer to replace some, or all, of the existing, insecure energy source used for heating with one or more secure energy sources.

One replacement option for space heating that has been used for generations is biomass. Wood (a form of biomass) is becoming a popular method of space heating because it can be a secure, renewable, and affordable source of energy. Technological advancements have seen the development of a new form of biomass supply, the wood-pellet, and its associated infrastructure, pellet-stoves and pellet-furnaces. Pellets allow some or all of an entire existing insecure energy source to be replaced with one that is secure. A typical Nova Scotian house needing 70 gigajoules for heating would require between four and five tonnes of pellets a year.

However, in Nova Scotia, wood-pellets cannot be considered a secure source of energy: there have been infrastructure and supply shortages over the past few months, caused by consumer demand exceeding supply for both stoves and pellets. Although infrastructure shortages may be explicable, supply shortages would appear to make little sense, given Nova Scotia’s forest resource. Quite simply, it would be reasonable to assume that Nova Scotia’s pellets should be an excellent fuel source that could help improve residential energy security.

They are—in some places.

Like Sweden.

That’s right—one of the major consumers of Nova Scotia’s wood-pellets is Sweden (there are others in Europe, including Holland), where they are used for heating, and in some cases, generating electricity. Although the exact figures are difficult to obtain, a number of studies show that Nova Scotia exports at least 80,000 tonnes of wood-pellets to Europe each year (in 2004, almost 92,000 tonnes of wood-pellets were exported through the Port of Halifax).

80,000 to 92,000 tonnes of wood-pellets would allow about five percent of Nova Scotian households to replace all of their insecure energy supplies needed for space heating with a secure source. Alternatively, about 20 percent of Nova Scotian households could improve their energy security for space heating if they each had access to one-tonne of these wood-pellets.

The growing demand for wood-pellets and wood-chips in Europe has been driven by European Union (EU) bioenergy policies that call for the increased use of biomass to improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Member countries of the EU are importing biomass from non-EU countries, primarily developing countries and Canada, in part on the assumption that these countries are stable, secure suppliers of energy.

However, biomass exports come at a price to the exporting nation. In developing countries such as Indonesia, rainforests are being clear-cut in favour of palm-tree monocultures (producing palm-oil for biodiesel); while in Nova Scotia, exports of wood-pellets and wood-chips do nothing to improve energy security in the province.

In late November, the Annapolis-Digby Economic Development Agency (EDA) announced their plans to produce between 10,000 and 30,000 tonnes annually of lower-quality wood-pellets from biomass in the Southwest Nova region of the province. The proposed pellets have high ash content, making them suitable for pellet-furnaces rather than pellet-stoves. Although the EDA recognizes the importance of making these pellets available to Nova Scotians, they will be shipped to Europe if a local market cannot be found.

Creating a local market for these pellets should not be that difficult—most public buildings (for example, offices, schools, fire stations, community halls) rely on imported oil products for space heating. By replacing oil and oil-furnaces with wood-pellets and pellet-furnaces, the provincial government would ensure that these buildings would be heated by a secure energy source. There is another compelling reason for installing secure heating in these buildings—if sources of energy for space heating become unattainable, and a heating emergency ensues, those affected by the emergency can shelter in these buildings until the emergency has passed.

It is time for Nova Scotia to act like a European country rather than as a colony of a European country. The Europeans import Nova Scotia‘s wood-pellets because they improve their energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—Nova Scotians need Nova Scotia’s wood-pellets for the same reasons.

The majority of energy sources used for space heating in Nova Scotia are insecure. To date, the province has done little to address the supply issue—the forthcoming release of the provincial government’s much-delayed “Energy Strategy Renewal” report must address this issue—failure to do so will continue to put many Nova Scotians at risk.

Larry Hughes
AllNovaScotia.com 12 December 2008