Three Yukon schools could soon be burning wood chips instead of heating oil, as the territorial government considers a switch to biomass. 

The schools are the St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction, Johnson Elementary School in Watson Lake and the Teslin Community School.  

Shane Andre, director of the territorial government's energy branch, says wood could be harvested and chipped locally.

"It allows us to create some economic opportunities close to those communities," he says.  

Whitehorse Correctional Centre

Some buildings in Yukon are already heated by biomass. This silo at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre stores wood pellets. (CBC)

The burners use wood chips, ideally sized about one inch across. Those could be scraps from logging or firewood or smaller material, like willows. Unlike traditional wood stoves, the units are automated and don't require someone to shovel in chips during the day.

No budget for the venture has been announced.

Andre says each school would require a 'fairly large storage unit' to house the chips. 

Minister wants to boost Yukon forestry industry

Scott Kent, Yukon's minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, says the schools were chosen because they're near wooded areas with the potential to be harvested.

He says the project is designed to boost Yukon's forestry industry, and follows meetings with the Yukon Wood Products Association. 

"We really want to develop the forestry industry," says Kent. "Right from the logging and harvesting side right through to value-added, which in this case is the generation of heat."

Biomass heaters increasingly used in Yukon

Biomass is being used elsewhere in Yukon. The Whitehorse Correctional Facility is already heated by wood pellets. A chip-based heating system in Dawson City heats the wastewater treatment plant.

In Whitehorse, the Raven Recycling plant also installed a biomass burner this year. The recycler is now partially heated by scrap wood from the Whitehorse landfill.

Biomass is also being studied at Yukon College's Cold Climate Innovation Research Centre.

Stephen Mooney, who directs the research centre, says the heaters could use trees which have been killed by encroaching pine beetles, or wood that is cut to manage forest fires. 

"The technology has changed in the last 15 years, with German, Austrian and Finnish companies being world leaders," he says. 

The Yukon government's latest proposal would use biomass only for heat. However, Mooney says it's feasible that one day biomass could also produce electricity. 

"That's on our radar," says Mooney. "But that doesn't have to do with these RFPs."

The government has issued what's called a "request for qualifications" which comes before a tender or formal request for proposals. 

Kent says he would like to see the three schools converted before the winter of 2017/2018.