'Energy farmer' sees future in willow trees

A farmer near Neepawa, Man. is growing one of Manitoba's first "energy crops" made from trees.
A Manitoba farmer is growing willow trees to produce an eco-friendly fuel source. 2:04

A farmer near Neepawa, Man. is growing one of Manitoba's first "energy crops" made from trees.

Four years ago, Roger Hanes planted an experimental plot of 26,000 willow trees in an attempt to prove the tree crop's viability as a heating fuel that would be more eco-friendly than coal or natural gas.

Willow tree wood chips can be burned in biomass furnaces for heating buildings. ((CBC))

A year later, only 28 trees survived.

"It was a hard lesson," laughed Hanes.

He now has about 1,000 trees growing strong, and he will expand to 10,000 trees next year, and 50,000 more in 2014.

The idea is to harvest the skinny brown trees every few years, chop them into wood chips, then transport the material to local greenhouses, barns or other buildings where it would be burned in special biomass furnaces for heat.

"This would be a good fuel for schools, for hospitals," Hanes said. "It's entirely renewable, we can grow it ourselves, and farmers can grow it locally."

Fast-growing trees

The fast-growing willow trees on Hanes's plot have risen to three metres so far, but they will eventually tower more than five metres — vastly higher than any other crop seen in Manitoba.

Once harvested, the willow trees do not need to be replanted — they grow right back.

"I just see it as another crop in the arsenal for the prairie farmer of the future," said Hanes.   Unlike other heating fuels such as coal and natural gas, this woody biomass produces no greenhouse gases. When the trees grow, they absorb the same carbon dioxide they later release when burned.

So it's a net zero release of emissions, said Hanes, which helps combat climate change.

"Society basically has to stop and think — do we want an Earth for our children to go on?" he said.

Energy farming, or the harvesting of biomass, has been actively pursued on the Prairies for converting wheat and corn into ethanol and biodiesel.

'Energy crops' criticized by some

But few farmers have attempted to plant non-food crops, such as trees, for their conversion to energy. Some Alberta farmers are now experimenting with poplar tree crops.

Hanes, right, shows CBC environment reporter Mychaylo Prystupa the willow tree energy crops on Hanes's farm. ((CBC))

Hanes admits that some have criticized energy crops for using valuable farm land.

"The 'food versus fuel' argument comes up time and time again," he said.

But Hanes added that hardy willow trees can grow almost anywhere, even in marginal and flood-prone areas.

Hanes said given the onset of so-called "peak oil" — the idea the world will eventually pump out its maximum output of petroleum — society needs to adopt more renewable fuels before fossil fuel prices rise rapidly.

In Europe, where fossil fuels are generally more expensive, wood biomass is already very popular, he said.

"[Europeans] are desperate for wood-pellet biomass for power generation," Hanes said. "The people I talk to are telling me 50 million tonnes need to be imported every year."

1.3M tonnes of biomass produced in 2010

The Wood Pellet Association of Canada says this country produced 1.3 million tonnes of wood pellet biomass in 2010, mostly from British Columbia, where the province is harvesting millions of acres of dead trees due to pine beetles.

Hank Venema of the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg said it will take some time before Canada adopts more biomass fuel.

The think-tank is experimenting with harvesting cattails as biomass near Lake Winnipeg.

Venema said modern, ultra-efficient furnaces will be needed to make biomass work, as well as new transportation systems. Then there's the higher cost of biomass.

"It's often competing with fossil fuels, and the full costs of fossil fuels are not generally embedded in the market price," said Venema.

Venema said the federal Conservative government has opted against national policies — such as carbon tax or cap and trade — aimed at making carbon pollution more expensive, so government efforts now must focus on incentives for consumers and organizations to upgrade to biomass furnaces.

In October, a new biomass heating unit began operation at Providence University College in Otterburne, Man. It was earlier given government funding to purchase the furnace to heat its campus with biomass from local farms.

Hanes is planting two species of willow: "Viminillas" from the Russian steppes, and the "Acute," a Canadian variety.