Nova Scotia needs a new energy strategy

Nova Scotia Power is facing a significant challenge: by 2015, the provincial government requires it to obtain one-quarter of its electricity from renewable sources. Even if electricity demand remains flat between now and 2015, NSP’s use of renewable energy must grow from 1,068 GWh (gigawatt-hours) in 2008 to 2,919 GWh in 2015, an increase of 1,851 GWh.

Until recently, claims by government ministers, NSP, and other groups in the province made it appear that wind-generated electricity would easily meet these targets. However, the impact of adding such a large amount of wind on such a small grid, the multi-year delay in obtaining wind turbines, the poor economics associated with wind in Nova Scotia, and the economic downturn means that by 2015, wind’s contribution will be limited at best.

These facts have forced NSP to look for other sources of energy that fit the government’s criteria of renewable. Tidal is still in its infancy and solar, like wind, is facing financial challenges. The government’s 2009 energy strategy expanded “renewable” to include “green” natural gas; however, declining production and no major offshore or onshore discoveries means that natural gas will contribute little to the NSP’s generation mix by 2015.

NSP’s management is clearly aware of these issues and is now looking into other possible energy sources, most notably biomass, as it fits the government’s definition of a renewable energy source. Earlier this year NSP announced that in 2013 it would purchase 400 GWh of electricity from a 60 megawatt biomass combustion facility in Port Hawkesbury to be built and operated by NewPage and Strait Bio-Gen. If such a facility could be built, it would meet almost 22 percent of NSP’s 2015 renewable energy target.

A week or so ago, NSP also announced that it planned to co-fire biomass with coal in its Point Aconi and Trenton generating facilities. The proposal called for between 25,000 and 50,000 tonnes of “clean” biomass. Ideally, the biomass would supply NSP with about 31 GWh, less than 2 percent of its 2015 target.

As the world enters a period of unstable energy prices and energy supply shortages, finding secure and environmentally benign energy sources will be vital for the social and economic wellbeing of any jurisdiction. However, there is more to meeting future energy needs than simply replacing one fuel source with another—it is necessary to extract as much energy as possible from the available fuel.

In both of NSP’s biomass proposals, the biomass will be consumed in conventional thermal generating facilities that operate at about 30 percent efficiency, meaning that for every 100 kWh of biomass energy consumed, about 30 kWh of electricity are produced—the remaining 70 kWh of biomass energy is simply discarded to the environment. It is inexcusable to waste energy at any time, but even more so during a time when security of supply is becoming of paramount importance.

However, this is only part of the problem—it is necessary to ensure that renewable fuels, such as biomass, are treated in a way that ensures they remain renewable. Progressive jurisdictions using biomass to meet their energy needs take the ashes remaining after combustion and return them to the forest to offset some of the nutrient losses associated with harvesting the biomass. For as important as it is to return the ash to the forest, it cannot be done if the biomass is co-fired with coal because the resulting ash contains materials that are detrimental to the forest.

Clearly, the way in which NSP is proposing to use biomass is neither secure nor environmentally benign. If biomass is to be used in Nova Scotia to meet the energy needs of Nova Scotians (rather than Nova Scotia Power), it will be necessary for the provincial government to change the focus of its present energy strategy. Quite simply, rather than continuing the existing approach that concentrates on NSP and its energy supply, Nova Scotia’s energy strategy should focus on the energy services needed by Nova Scotians.

One such energy service is space and water heating—something needed by all residential, commercial, and institutional buildings in Nova Scotia. At present, the vast majority of these buildings meet their heating needs from imported fuel oil and coal-fired electricity—neither of which can be considered secure or environmentally benign.

If done properly, biomass can replace fuel oil and electricity to meet the space and water heating needs of many Nova Scotians in at least two different ways. For individual homes and buildings in rural and suburban areas, pellet furnaces with efficiencies as high as 85 percent can be installed, replacing existing boilers. In urban settings, combined heat and power facilities operating at 70 percent efficiency can supply both hot water (distributed through insulated, underground pipes) and electricity to the community. If small, community-based combined heat and power facilities were built in Nova Scotia, they would reduce the distance needed to ship the biomass and allow the biomass ash to be returned the forest.

Any policy that results in the use of biomass for energy will require a forestry policy that recognizes the current state of Nova Scotia’s forests. It would need to ensure that forestry practices, from seeding to harvesting, minimized the damage and improved the health of the forests. Without such a policy, any biomass energy program will be of limited use to Nova Scotians.

The world has changed dramatically since the province’s original energy strategy was released in 2001. The seemingly unexpected rise in world energy prices, driven by growing demand for energy in Asia and the decline in production from many of the world’s major oil fields, are a foretaste of the energy problems the world is about to face in the coming decade.

By deciding to continue with the 2001 energy strategy and its 2009 revision, the provincial government is making a serious error. The assumptions on which these strategies relied are outdated and must be replaced. The province’s future must be based on something more concrete than hoping for natural gas discoveries and that NSP will be able to meet a renewable energy target.

Larry Hughes 25 August 2009