Nova Scotia

To help create markets for wood chips, N.S. encouraged increase in biomass burning

With chips piling up in woodyards following the closure of Northern Pulp, the province has been pursuing a variety of options, including district heating, wood pellets and new export markets, but it also made a change in May to help in the short term.

Brooklyn Energy, Point Tupper plants operating at 50-60% capacity since June

There has been an increase in the amount of biomass being burned at the Nova Scotia Power biomass plant at Point Tupper and at Brooklyn Energy since June.

As the Nova Scotia government continues to search for new markets for wood chips, a change made earlier this spring has allowed for more biomass to be burned in the interim as a way to help the forestry sector.

Sawmills and contractors were suddenly faced with a glut of wood chips following the shutdown of Northern Pulp at the end of January. The Pictou County pulp mill was the largest consumer of wood chips and other residuals in Nova Scotia, by a large margin.

With chips suddenly piling up in woodyards, the province has been pursuing a variety of options, including district heating, wood pellets and new export markets, but it also made a change in May to help in the short term.

When it became clear the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was not yet ready to come fully online, affecting Nova Scotia Power's renewable energy target, the government signed an order in council requiring the utility to buy more renewables from within the province. That translated to the utility buying more wood chips to be used in the biomass boilers that generate electricity at Brooklyn Energy and in Point Tupper.

"That gives sawmills a place for their wood chips and their residuals, which is critical for them," Kelliann Dean, the deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs and chair of the province's forestry transition team, told reporters at Province House on Tuesday.

The Northern Pulp mill in Abercrombie Point, N.S., is viewed from Pictou, N.S., Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. After it shut down, sawmills and contractors were suddenly faced with a glut of wood chips. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power said the two biomass plants have been operating at between 50 and 60 per cent capacity since June.

That's a particularly big increase for Brooklyn Energy, which typically does not run through the summer, Lands and Forestry deputy minister Julie Towers told reporters. The Point Tupper plant is always operating at some capacity, she said, because it provides steam for Port Hawkesbury Paper.

"But they have absolutely increased their use through these months where normally they wouldn't need to draw on it for the power demand," Towers told reporters following a legislative committee meeting she, Dean and another senior official appeared before.

In 2016, the province made a change so the biomass plant in Point Tupper no longer carried a "must-run" designation.

Dean acknowledged that burning more biomass to make electricity is not a long-term solution. But the decision came at a time when mills were already taking a loss on selling chips somewhere other than Northern Pulp, while having chips pile up with nowhere to go would have been even more costly.

Opposition reaction

NDP Lands and Forestry critic Lisa Roberts said if wood is going to be burned, she'd prefer to see it done to generate heat, as it will be in the six district heating pilot projects the government is pursuing.

But Roberts said her party also recognizes there is a transition happening in the forestry sector and it may require some short-term measures that are less favourable than they would prefer.

"We can't have lumber yards that are full of chips, but I think the question is how short term is this going to be?" she said.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said the question of burning more biomass is one that includes considerations for the forestry sector, but also the effects on the environment and power rates. Biomass is one of the most expensive methods of generating electricity.

"There's no question that increasing the mix of biomass into the energy grid has helped the sector, but we just need to understand what is the other side of that," he told reporters.

Towers said that with the increase in biomass burning, exporting of some chips, increase in pellet production and several other initiatives, almost all of the chips that had been going to Northern Pulp have been able to find new landing places.