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Biomass: There's Money in That Wood Waste

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One country's demonstration project is another country's established technology.

When Sherwood Park in Alberta built a demonstration biomass district heating project they bought the equipment from Lambion Energy Solutions of Germany. Axel Lambion is the CEO and he chuckles at project's demonstration status. In his charming, German accented English notes that his company has built over 3,400 of these projects throughout Europe and around the world. In fact, his great, great grandfather was building biomass energy systems for sawmills at the end of the 19th century.

"His slogan was take useless waste and make high quality energy out of it. Energy at that time was very expensive, it seems like we have forgotten this in the last decades," says Lambion.

And that's exactly what the project in Sherwood Park does. Its feedstock is waste wood, ground up wooden pallets and crates, of which there is a plentiful supply garnered from nearby pallet manufacturing operation North Star Pallets. They're also planning to burn agricultural residues, like barley straw or oat hulls, on a research basis.

The project was commissioned in September of 2012 and came in at $3.2 million with the federal government putting in $1.5 million, $350,000 coming from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Strathcona County (Sherwood Park is in Stathcona County) filling in the rest with along with expertise supplied by the Resource Industry Suppliers Association. And while we kid about its demonstration project moniker it is well deserved, it is the first project of its kind in Alberta.

The project itself is quite similar to the one we profiled at UBC, it burns biomass and uses the energy to heat several different buildings. Like the UBC project it was an add on to an existing natural gas district heating system.

District heating is a simple idea. Produce the heat in a large centralized plant and then pipe it to nearby customers, but it still hasn't cracked into the mainstream in Canada yet (despite this awesome typewritten report from 1975, PDF). However, the list of benefits from district heating is worth remembering

Customers no longer have to worry about maintenance
  • Space savings with the removal of furnaces and chimneys in each building
  • Less risk of fire
  • Improved air quality
  • Flexible - can add absorption chillers for cooling or electricity generation depending on demands
  • More efficient
  • Less greenhouse gas emissions

The efficiency of the one-megawatt biomass heating plant of the demonstration project blows away all of the little furnaces and boilers that would have been used out of the water. It heats a recreation centre, numerous county buildings, a large theatre space and even nearby condos. The economies of scale are impressive.

A condition of receiving its grants meant it had to meet or exceed air quality and emissions requirements. The government wanted this project to be replicable in other urban sites and it ensures it's a good neighbour with scrubbers, multiple monitors and something called an electro-static precipitator.

According to Harry Welling of Kalwa Biogenics, another partner on the project, the heating provided by the biomass project can cover half of the heating load on the coldest prairie winter day of the year and the vast majority of the heating loads the rest of the year.

To use utility company jargon, it provides the base-load heat and the natural gas boilers provide peak demand and backup.

The system also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1,200 tonnes a year compared to the natural gas system it was added to. It also burns 12,000 tonnes of biomass a year. To avoid noise the project uses a modular container system to haul the biomass in and take the empty containers away. Each container carries 3.5 tonnes of biomass

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Bucolic little biomass boiler

It's tucked into an area of town called Centre in the Park featuring green space, couples walking their dogs and fountains. The containers only get replaced on weekdays and during daytime hours. Except for the sign telling you so you'd hardly know there was a large wood-fired boiler in this bucolic little area.

Welling was also instrumental in assessing the economics of the project. The big factor in deciding to build a system like this is the cost of fuel. While the price and volatility of natural gas has declined over the years the cost of the commodity has been steadily inching up since early 2012.

Welling has crunched the numbers and found that with biomass at $40 per tonne, the cost of a gigajoule worth of heat is $2.20, or roughly half of the current price of natural gas.

Chopping the fuel cost in half is quite the accomplishment, but with a biomass system comes other costs - mostly labour and transportation. Those "liabilities" are actually anything but, they're local jobs that are filled by people who live in the county.

And when you start talking about economic opportunities for biomass the lowest hanging fruit is the forestry and lumber processing industries. This is an area of the economy that has been depressed for quite some time. Burning biomass for heat or power means new economic opportunities.

When Axel Lambion looks at Europe he sees a saturated market. Everyone and their dog has a biomass system, they're taking old coal plants and co-firing them with wood pellets. Lambion has even installed systems that run on left-over grapes from the wine-making process and left-over potato skins from a French fry operation - they're not very efficient but they do deal with waste effectively.

By comparison Canada is a land of opportunity, with only a few similar systems installed across the country.

"That's why I'm here. In fact it's very interesting for us," says Lambion.

"We are very proud that we are doing a project for Vanderwell Contractors up in Slave Lake which is a big privately owned saw mill. We're doing a project where we burn 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes of hawk fuel (waste wood) which we convert into electric energy."

The project could generate 3.6 megawatts of electricity and it could save the sawmill hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity costs each year.

Canada has the biomass. And we need to reduce our waste and our greenhouse gas emissions. We need the jobs and the heat and power. Once companies like Lambion and others prove their mettle in the North American market expect Canadian and U.S. companies to get a lot more involved with biomass energy systems.

We'd love to hear your biomass story in the comments.