A northwestern Ontario green energy company is making incremental strides toward promoting a regional biomass economy.
Over the years, Northerners have heard from industry, government and academics about endless opportunities to harvest, transport and process the abundant supply of discarded forest slash into heat and energy for buildings and entire communities.
But little in the way of tangible progress has been made.
Biothermic Wood Energy Systems, a Thunder Bay biofuel heating company, established a processing and storage facility that they bill as the first of its kind in Ontario.
Led by co-owner Vince Rutter, Biothermic has been a leader in promoting modern wood heating solutions using Northern Ontario-sourced wood fuel instead of relying on propane, natural gas and imported oil.
To Rutter, Canada’s forests are vast, the heat demand is large, and the price of fossil fuels is bound to go up with federal carbon pricing.
“The lowest cost alternative, without a doubt, is wood. We have to move in that direction.”
On the company’s Mooney Avenue acreage in Thunder Bay’s inner city, a wood chip processing plant and a 5,000-square-foot dome-like storage shed has been erected.
Rutter has assembled an aggregate-style screening system with a hopper, agitator and conveyor belt leading to a three-deck screening plant. It separates the wood particles into streams to produce a consistent size that’s ideal for the boilers he sells.
The raw material is sourced through his other company, Rutter Urban Forestry, a Thunder Bay tree care company.
The jumble of twigs and clippings that arrives on his trucks is green wood with a moisture content of greater than 50 per cent, too high to be used as boiler fuel.
To dry it out, the material is stored inside an open-ended shed where air can pass through and decomposition can take place to reduce the moisture content to 30 per cent or lower.
As well as being a supplier of chips, Biothermic is a dealer for Fröling, the Austrian manufacturer of clean-burning home and commercial-scale wood chip, pellet and firewood combustion boilers.
His local customers include Belluz Farms, outside Thunder Bay, which purchased and installed a new wood chip system to heat its greenhouses. Confederation College also bought a boiler for its campus.
In early November, one of the larger 2,500-kilogram boilers was in Rutter’s shop being prepared for shipment to New Brunswick where the City of Moncton planned to install it to heat a swimming pool building.
More boilers were being boxed to send to three First Nations for a sawmill project and other community initiatives.
Rutter’s company has sold Wiikwemikoong, a First Nation community on Manitoulin Island, more than a dozen wood chip boilers and 45 smaller forced-air residential systems.
The progressive community is committed to using locally sourced wood energy, instead of relying on fossil fuels, with plans for a wood pellet plant near the Domtar sawmill in Nairn Centre.
While there’s public acceptance of biomass heating, momentum in building a pan-Northern biomass economy has been painfully slow.
In the past, large and small companies have invested in the clean wood-burning technologies and infrastructure only to see the economics change and their projects crash.
Rutter said they constantly talk with groups about wood chip heating but no one is at the shovel-ready phase yet.
“We’re still at a point where fossil fuels are relatively cheap and knowledge (about chip heating) is low,” said Rutter.
“It’s too easy for mechanical companies to just sell propane systems.”
The initial capital outlay for large-scale projects like district heating plans are so high, you must have a courageous proponent that’s willing to take on the risks to see the development to completion, he said.
Last year, Rutter wasn’t happy with the elimination of the Green Energy Ontario program, announced by the previous Wynne government just before the provincial election.
It went on the chopping block when the Ford government purged all of the associated cap-and-trade programming, including a residential wood heating incentive program.
Rutter said it posed a challenging environment for anyone to consider a long-term investment in renewable energy because of the threat of government funding being pulled.
But with the re-election of a federal government that promises action on climate change, he expects favourable changes in the coming months.
Together with his brother and business partner Michael, Rutter attributes his company’s attempts to create a local bioeconomy to “persistence and stubbornness.”
“We’re becoming profitable but it’s taken us five years to get here.”
As a professional forester and arborist, Rutter has a good handle on Canada’s energy needs and what our forests can produce.
“You connect the dots and say, we need to use less oil. It’s not going to get any warmer in Canada, we’re still going to need a lot of heat and we have this giant forest – the largest sustainable forest per capita in Canada –that could produce 10 times more volume per hectare if we managed it more intensively. It only makes sense that we go in that direction.”