Nova Scotia Power no longer must run its Cape Breton biomass plant around the clock to produce electricity — which may mean savings for customers.

In documents filed Friday with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, the power company estimated it could save $9 million in 2017 by running its Point Tupper facility on an as-needed basis. 

Burning wood chips, bark and sawdust to produce electricity costs more than using coal, oil or natural gas, but a provincial law designated the biomass plant a "must run" facility. That meant the utility had to run the plant 24/7.

On Friday, the province amended renewable electricity regulations, eliminating the "must run" designation.

Nova Scotia Power spokeswoman Sasha Irving couldn't say what impact the change could have on coming rate hikes.

The utility has presented to the provincial regulator a 1.3 per cent average increase per year from 2017 to 2019, she said. 

"This would provide a small decrease on that," Irving said. "Exactly what the decrease is, we need to go through the process to look at."

Change called 'great first step'

Burning biomass helped the province meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, but was highly controversial. Groups, such as the Ecology Action Centre, rejected the claim biomass burning produced green energy.

"There's nothing environmentally friendly about burning trees to create electricity," said the centre's wilderness co-ordinator, Ray Plourde.

"It's horribly inefficient and it probably causes as much greenhouse gases as coal. Today the government has made a great first step in addressing the issue of the use of forest biomass for terribly inefficient electricity generation."

Mature trees clear cut

Port Hawkesbury Paper, the plant in Point Tupper, N.S., relies on the biomass plant to burn waste wood. (Jeff Green/CBC)

Forests, rate stability concerns

Nova Scotia Energy Minister Michel Samson told CBC News the government acted only on what Nova Scotians said during public consultations.

"We heard as part of our electricity review that Nova Scotians wanted to see electricity rates stable and predictable," Samson said. "They expressed concern about the use of primary forest products for biomass and electric generation."

Samson said the government has heard those concerns and has been working to address rate stability. 

"This is another important step in that process," he said. 

Port Hawkesbury Paper in Point Tupper, N.S., relies on the biomass plant to burn waste wood.

Marc Dube, development manager for plant operator Stern Partners, said the plant would continue to do that and the change will have no effect on company operations.