P.E.I. school prepares to fire up new biomass heating system

Students at West Royalty Elementary School in Charlottetown will be feeling the heat from something new as the temperatures drop this winter. It's part of a wave of public buildings across P.E.I., including five schools, being converted to biomass heating systems in 2019.

New systems in 5 schools will save 1.3 million litres of heating oil

The Prince Edward Home in Charlottetown has a wood-chip heating system, an older version of the one being installed at West Royalty school. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Students at West Royalty Elementary School in Charlottetown will be feeling the heat from something new as the temperatures drop this winter. 

It's part of a wave of public buildings across P.E.I., including five schools, being converted to biomass heating systems by 2021.

"The big thing here is to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Tyler Gallant, an engineer with the Department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy.

"Going with the biomass system, we basically eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions for heating." 

Biomass energy is produced from renewable, biological sources such as plants, wood and waste.

This building next to West Royalty School holds a 350-kilowatt wood-chip heating system that will supply 90 per cent of the school's annual heating needs. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The P.E.I. government will own the new biomass systems and contractors will operate and maintain them.

Gallant said the heating systems are carbon neutral, because the trees are being harvested in a sustainable way, according to the provincial forestry management plan.

Cost savings

Gallant said 50 per cent of the cost of the new biomass heating systems is being covered by federal funding, under the Low Carbon Economy Fund, with the provincial government paying the other half of the $6.5 million over three years.

Gallant said there have been challenges, including integrating the biomass boilers into existing systems, some 50 or 60 years old.

This 5,000 litre tank holds hot water until it's needed in the school. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The department also had to do a total revamp of provincial regulations, to allow the systems to be imported from Europe.

"The provincial boiler inspector went over to Europe to certify everything and made sure that he was satisfied with everything and helped update and change all the regulations to allow for this all to come in," Gallant said.

"We're probably the leader in Canada right now."

'Large opportunity'

A P.E.I.-based company, Wood 4 Heating Canada, is installing the new biomass system at West Royalty.

"It's been a large opportunity," said Alex Pratt, biomass operations manager for the company.

"Biomass is such a niche industry still within Atlantic Canada, so the province taking the first initiative to put a program in place and then get the industry moving was a large step for us."

Alex Pratt says the company is looking to double the number of systems it will install in 2020. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Wood 4 Heating Canada currently owns and operates 13 of P.E.I.'s existing biomass heating systems fuelled by wood chips, and is now starting to sell the systems to the private sector and in Nova Scotia.

Pratt said the wood-chip heating system at West Royalty will feed hot water into the school, to provide about 90 per cent of the school's heat annually.

The boiler inspector for P.E.I. had to do a total revamp of provincial regulations to allow the systems to be imported from Europe. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"It's a gasification boiler so essentially the wood is burned and the gases are extracted," Pratt said. 

"The boiler will actually consume certain gases within the wood —the methane, the carbon — to get a very efficient burn and a very clean burn and that's where it gets its high efficiency."

European connection

Pratt said the company looks to double the number of systems it will install in 2020, but the biggest challenge has been finding the skilled workers the company needs, including plumbers and electricians.

As for a supply of wood, Pratt said there is no fear of any shortage.

A wood chipper takes brush left behind after a field in Mount Stewart, P.E.I., was cleared by its farmer. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"Right now, we use around two per cent of the waste wood that's regrown annually so we're not even really scratching the surface," Pratt said. 

"If the wood is left to degrade, then it'll release harmful greenhouse gases like methane into the air, whereas if we burn that in our boiler we actually consume that."

The heating system at the Prince Edward Home uses wood chips. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The founder of Wood 4 Heat is from Europe and Pratt said that connection has helped to grow biomass heating on P.E.I., and all of the equipment comes from Austria.

"Austria's the world leader in biomass so this technology has been around for 40, 50 years so it's just hitting our doorstep now," Pratt said. 

"Biomass is a forever changing industry and it's growing quite rapidly right now in Atlantic Canada so we're right on the cutting edge of it."

More systems to come

Wood 4 Heating is also installing a biomass sytem at Westwood Primary.

Another contractor called AF Energy Inc. is installing wood-chip boiler plants at Queen Elizabeth Elementary, M.E. Callaghan Intermediate and Kensington Intermediate Senior High School.

The heating system at West Royalty has been imported from Austria, which has been using the technology for more than 40 years. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Atlantic Bioheat, one of AF Energy's partners, currently operates 11 biomass heating sites across the Island.

The total price tag for the biomass systems at the five Island schools is $2.4 million.

The wood chip system at the Prince Edward Home is owned and operated by Wood 4 Heating Canada. The new systems will be owned by the P.E.I. government, and operated by Wood 4 Heating. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The projects for 2020 include a seniors' complex in Summerside, the Summerside waterfront campus of Holland College and the Queens County Highway Depot, along with three more sites still to be determined.

Glen Stewart Primary and Stratford Elementary are also having a system installed that they will share.

The P.E.I. government currently has 29 facilities running on biomass, with an annual savings of 4 million litres of oil, the equivalent of 10,750 tonnes of CO2.

This initiative is expected to increase that by 1.3 million litres of oil, or 3,500 tonnes of CO2.

More P.E.I. news


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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