A Fibre Basket Made Of Money: Growing British Columbia's Bioenergy Sector

Biomass Energy PlantThough British Columbia is famous for its abundant hydropower, the lush province has another largely abundant renewable energy resource that has yet to reach its potential—biomass. We’re talking about organic by-products, like leftover wood chips from forestry operations, leafy material from agriculture, and household waste that could be used to power trucks, create electricity, or replace coal.

This week, 400 researchers, investors, entrepreneurs, and public and private sector leaders, from across Canada and the world will converge in Prince George for the 10th International Bioenergy Conference—the nation’s largest such event.

In advance of this morning’s kick-off, we caught up with Michael Weedon, the executive director of the B.C. Bioenergy Network, one of the conference hosts. The network launched in 2008 with a grant from the provincial government. It is an industry-led initiative that helps deploy near-term bioenergy technologies and supports research that would in turn advance bioenergy capacity in British Columbia.

Michael Weedon, executive director of the B.C. Bioenergy Network
Michael Weedon, executive director of the B.C. Bioenergy Network

What does the B.C. Bioenergy Network do?

We have three mandates: education and advocacy, capacity building projects, and capital projects. The major role we play is contributing to the investment portfolio of many of the first commercial bioenergy projects in British Columbia. Some of these projects are North American firsts, and others are world firsts.

Such as?

Harvest Power, in Richmond, British Columbia has established an “energy garden.” It is an innovative municipal green waste-to-renewable energy demonstration that diverts 27,000 tonnes of organic materials away from British Columbia landfills, reducing C02 emissions by roughly 10,255 tonnes per year. The facility was the first of its kind in North America, and has earned accolades from KPMG and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

We can’t talk about bioenergy without touching on controversy. Many people and organizations consider bioenergy a non-starter, because productive agricultural lands should never be used to “grow fuel.” Your take?

Personally, I’m not a big advocate of using our agricultural lands for “fuel over food,” but you can certainly use agricultural byproducts. Think manure from a dairy farm, take that waste material and use it to make energy. Or you can take crop waste—like the stalks and husks of corn—and turn that into energy.

What about the standing dead timber left behind by the mountain pine beetle epidemic?

Not all forms of bioenergy are sustainable—it’s all about doing it in a way that is. We wouldn’t support bioenergy projects that we didn’t feel were environmentally sound. If we utilize the mountain pine beetle resource, we can harvest the dead trees and replant those forests to help regrowth.

Where does the province fit into the global bioenergy scene?

Along with Russia, Brazil, and the southern United States, British Columbia is one of the four largest “fibre baskets”—meaning the region is rich in woody byproducts—in the world. There’s great potential to continue the growth of the industry here. Beyond domestic development, there’s an opportunity to develop export markets for solid fuels such as wood pellets for heating. There are already a great deal of them going to Europe. Overall, the market is developing rapidly in Europe, where the sector got its start. Brazil is also very rapidly utilizing the byproducts of sugarcane as feedstock for liquid fuels.

You’ve been at this since 2008. What kind of growth have you seen in the bioenergy sector since then?

We did an internal study that added up all of the bioenergy projects on the books—or being actively talked about—and the total easily hit hundreds of millions of dollars. For its part, the Network has been directly involved in multiple investments greater than $150 million, and many of these companies have gone on to export their products and services. These types of investments contribute to the economy’s overall stability and health of the economy.

If the sector fulfils its potential, what would that look like with respect to jobs?

The numbers are preliminary as we are still actively working on an assessment, but we estimate that the potential is 75,000 to 100,000 jobs throughout the province. We based this on a model developed by Dr. William Strauss—a world renowned economist who is speaking at our conference this week, and who has done a similar projection for the state of Maine.

What are some of the most exciting technological developments happening in bioenergy?

We’re seeing a number of successful projects, like Harvest Power, based on waste material. We’re also seeing torrefaction—a process where you slowly roast fuel pellets in order to obtain a better fuel quality for combustion and gasification—being used to manufacture next-generation wood pellets. Of course, since it’s not coal, it’s a product that has a very low carbon impact.

Another promising area of woody biomass is liquid fuels. These are drop-in replacement fuels which can replace, or be added to, diesel and jet fuel. Dr. Sam Weaver, a speaker at this week’s conference, is working on this. We can do a lot more with liquid fuels. They have a much higher value than wood pellets because their energy density is so high and they are a transportation fuel.

Where are the bioenergy hot spots in the province?

Wherever there are concentrated areas of organic waste residuals—cities with decent sized populations—you have the opportunity to develop biomethane. There’s also a broad-based opportunity wherever there is biomass, including wherever there are existing forestry operations.

What type of policies would help encourage the sector’s growth?

British Columbia’s carbon tax allows for the adoption of clean energy solutions. When you tell people from outside of British Columbia about the carbon tax, they’re envious. It makes our solutions more viable. If that policy isn’t maintained, you won’t be able to develop the industry as quickly as you can today. Our challenge is that we have some of the lowest-cost energy in the world here in British Columbia. Our projects have to offer the very best so that they can compete.

Print this article