Northern Ontario's bioeconomy is not necessarily stalled but it's certainly going “up hill,” said a policy and expert in wood energy and biofuels.
Queen's University geography professor Warren Mabee distinctly remembers attended a 2009 conference in North Bay where the northeast was being hailed as “the Saudi Arabia of biomass.”
About 400 delegates attending the two-day event at Nipissing University to hear presentations from industry, government, and academics like Mabee talk about Ontario's great green potential. Four years later and the jury is still out, how much, if anything, has been accomplished.
Mabee has co-authored an 83-page “road map” for Nipissing University's Biomass Innovation Centre that examined the state of the bioeconomy in the Blue Sky Region surrounding North Bay.
The study, released in June, takes stock of the wood and agricultural residue inventory in the North Bay-Mattawa-Sturgeon Falls-Parry Sound area and identifies some potential opportunities for bioproducts and biochemicals.
His report identified more than 475,000 bone dry tonnes of available wood that is not harvested every year over the roughly 50,000 square kilometres of the Blue Sky region, plus an additional 250,000 tonnes of harvested residue that's not being used. It's intended to be a conversion starter to rekindle interest in a natural resources sector in Ontario that's been sorely lagging behind other provinces and countries.
In his scan of the northeast, Mabee said the local willingness is there but there's a lack of investment capital to make things happen.
“The capital is out there for biofuel options but they tend to chase the easiest and less risky projects, which tend to be agriculturally-based.”
His report identified examples of bioindustrial clusters in wood products, chemicals and high-tech development in Austria, Chile, China, the Scandinavian countries, Vancouver and Prince George, B.C. that integrate facilities for feedstock with bioproducts, and heat and power generation.
In southwestern Ontario, the Sarnia-Lambton area has the beginnings of a biocluster with Montreal's BioAmber securing financing for a $97-million biorefinery that uses sugar from corn to make bio- succinic acid used in cosmetics, disposable cutlery and auto parts.
Mabee said what limited investment capital is available is steered toward these ag-based bioproducts, which are more technologically advanced and the access to crop feedstock is far easier than trying to compete for and secure fibre in the North.
“Tech companies don't want to be licence holders and harvest trees. Many can't understand why you just can't buy wood like in agriculture.”
Mabee said Northern Ontario is in need of champions, both locally and at the government level. While the former McGuinty government's Green Energy Act was an aggressive piece of legislation with ambitous targets, Mabee said scant attention was given to generating electricity through biofuels.
“It's the most complicated and most people don't want to go the extra distance when you could just establish a wind farm.”
Unlike government incentives for wind and solar developers, there are no Feed-in-Tariff programs for those engaged in the woody biomass economy.
Instead of creating large mega-million-dollar biorefineries based on unproven, risky technologies, Mabee said a good way to kick-start the regional bioeconomy is through a series of micro-projects such as heating schools or establishing a district heating plans.
“A school would benefit hugely from having a biomass boiler provided you have a system set up.” Doing one plant is expensive but rolling out many across multiple school districts would make sense. Mabee said getting your hands on the raw woody material can be done by establishing a biofuel aggregator,
set up like a Crown corporation, to act as feedstock manager to coordinate and handle the raw material.
But government needs to provide specialized support and offer assistance in logistics, business planning and training to remove some risks.
Mabee would like to see more government activity on this but he believes Ottawa and Queen's Park are slow to work with the forestry sector because it's viewed as a sunset industry.
“We need somebody in a leadership position to sit down the companies and see all the options that are out there and ask why we're not doing it?” And with the forestry industry restructuring, Dawn Lambe, manager of the Biomass Innovation Centre, said there is zero appetite among the big industry players to dive in.
Lambe said there are core barriers that's keeping the bioeconomy at a “trudging, and some sometimes backward, pace.”
She identified the Ministry of Environment as a roadblock that's mothballed a number of wood pellet- burning district heating projects in the North.
Lambe is unsure if it's a lack of ministry capacity in issuing certificates of approval or if the government is dismissive of boiler technology advancements in European countries like Germany and Denmark.
She said the main focus of Ontario's energy portfolio has been on generating more megawatts.
“Thirty- our per cent of the energy footprint in Ontario is heat, whether its residential or commercial, and there are opportunities to incentivize but the focus has been on electricity.”
And the fact that companies like Rentech plan to ship Ontario wood pellets overseas to European utilities for biopower uses makes her question why a more robust domestic consumer industry hasn't been developed.
“Quebec City has a downtown heating plan servicing more than 2,000 retail outlets where the trucks come downtown and drop them off in a hopper. Ontario is probably15 to 20 years behind every other province in Canada.”
Lambe said many of her neighbours' homes south of North Bay are heated with diesel oil or propane instead of wood pellets from a local manufacturer. <
“We need to focus on smaller, quick wins, build the knowledge, infrastructure and the capacity. If we had focussed on that 10 years ago, we would have a thriving bioeconomy.”