By James Neeley
A new renewable source of energy is all around us just waiting to be capitalized upon: Biomass plant material, vegetation, chipped wood and agricultural waste is a permanent natural resource in Northern Ontario.
It grows on its own and is produced as a waste of the forestry industry.
Ambrose Raftis of Greening Temiskaming says she believes biomass can replace oil and natural gas as our primary energy source.
"We need to take responsibility of our energy," Raftis said. "Getting off oil is great for the economy and the environment."
A Northern Ontario biomass system could reduce each communities carbon footprint by 30 to 40 per cent, he said.
The plan: The approximate five million tonnes of biomass waste in Northern Ontario would be used to supply fuel for district heating plants located in every city, town and village in Northern Ontario. The plants produce heat distributed to households and businesses through underground piping.
By developing a strategy that includes everyone in the area, Raftis said, "this is how we optimize the dollar return to the community."
The Temiskaming area, he explained, spends $35 million a year on heat energy. In a district biomass heating system, that $35 million stays in the community.
"That alone would have a huge impact."
But if communities can also generate another 30 per cent in electricity they can earn revenue for the community, Raftis said.
"Our net electrical rates will go down," he said, explaining, if it costs a community $8 million to run the biomass heating system and it brings in $2 million in carbon credits, $4 million from electricity production, then the real operating cost is only $2 million a year.
The goal, he said, "is to make Northern Ontario look like Northern Europe.
"It's not going to take us 30 years," Raftis said, explaining the model has been developed, tested, and mastered.
Northern Europe is just as eager to break into the "green gold" reserves of Canada.
The Swedish biomass energy system has been operational for about 30 years, said Martin Bernas, president of Sweden-based Energiprojekt, Sverige AB.
Today, 28 per cent of the country's primary energy supply is based in bioenergy, that's not county hydro electricity, added Bjorn Vikinge, president of Vikinge Forest and Bioenergy based in Sweden.
Eighty per cent of heating energy comes from the forest, Bernas said.
"Canada could do much better. Canada has larger cities which can also be heated by biomass and a biomass industry in Canada could produce a lot of electricity."
With its size and sparse population, Canada is "green gold" country, Bernas said.
The Swedish model, Vikinge explained, would mean setting up lots of individual plants throughout Northern Ontario.
"The natural inclination is to start small, but in Canada -- with all the biomass resources -- it might be viable to start on a large scale," Vikinge said, explaining all it would require is integrating the biomass system with the traditional forestry industry.
New rules waiting for parliamentary approval under the Green Energy Act should remove a major obstacle to the biomass revolution by changing boiler standards, Raftis said.
Under previous standards the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) forced an employee to be on site 24-hours a day, he said.
If the legislation is passed, “we will only be required to have staff on for eight hours a day," Raftis said, explaining that makes it feasible to run a plant for a town of 300 households.
In even smaller communities the plants can be monitored outside, he added.
"We can easily afford to have operators on for a reasonable amount of time. It also creates a job in each community," Raftis said.
Bernas said he is prepared to work with Canadian companies: share his knowledge, technology, and invest.
"We can help create the industry in Canada," he said, explaining plants, boilers, generators and pipes can all be designed in Europe and produced in Canada.
"The point, from our side is the market in Europe is getting saturated. We are looking for new markets and Ontario is on the front line," he said.
Ideally, Raftis explained the district heating system would run mainly on forest chipped wood, which can go straight from the forest floor, into the chipper, to the truck and into the plant.
"All of which make chipped wood a third the cost of pellets to use as an energy source," he said.
The European boilers used in the district heating plants in Sweden burn at a 90 per cent efficiency level using chipped wood.
With pellets come the capital costs of a processing plant, Raftis said.
"There are a lot of energy costs, they have to dried at a certain level, blended, stored and then compressed."
Greening Temiskaming is working to develop a district biomass heating pilot project, Raftis said.
They are hoping to develop a plant in a community of about 300 households as an economic development project through government funding.
Once the system is understood, he said,.then they will start looking for investors to develop the first biomass home and commercial heating system in Northern Ontario.
"The idea is we are trying to replace oil and gas, even in isolated individual households, with a system using local biomass," Raftis said, explaining it would be a little more expensive in remote areas compared to towns and cities.
"It will still be much lower than what people are paying now for gas, and far more convenient," he said.
Under the Northern European model, Raftis said, capital costs are not relevant.
"The Northern European model has seen communities pay off the capital investments in one to three years," he said.
"We're not going to be able to do that. But we are building an energy system that will serve us for over 50 years. If it takes us three or five years to pay off it's still one of the best investments we can make."
Once infrastructure is paid off, all the profits can be used to reinvest in other projects or new systems in other communities, Raftis said.