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Touting the green machine

Public education a priority for biomass producers

When it comes to popularizing the use of biomass as an alternative fuel, public education should be the industry’s number one priority, says Dutch Dresser.

Dresser, a founding director of Maine Energy Systems in Bethel, Maine, has been visiting communities to spread word of biomass’s environmental and economic advantages.

But because most outside the industry have little experience with the medium, it’s an uphill climb.

“If I were to suggest to you that you could go out and buy a car this afternoon, you would have no difficulty knowing which cars would be on your list and which cars wouldn’t be on your list — you understand about cars,” Dresser said.

“If I suggested to you that you could go out and buy a pellet boiler or a pellet furnace this afternoon, you’d likely have no idea, and it would be really easy for you to buy a bad experience.”

Dresser was one of several guest speakers during the Biomass North Annual General Meeting and Forum in North Bay in October.

Knowledge of solar and wind applications has become relatively mainstream, Dresser noted, but getting people to understand the benefits of using biomass — leftover forest product like branches, needles, and bark — to fuel their heating and energy systems continues to be an uphill challenge.

There are myriad boilers and furnaces, and equally diverse forms of fuel, and getting the right combination for the right application is critical to success, Dresser said.

Despite the challenges, there are companies in Canada that are making headway. Viessmann has been manufacturing heating systems out of its Waterloo location for 30 years.

A highlight of its work is its Enderby, B.C., project, where in recent years it’s installed a district heating project that’s privately owned but serves commercial and residential clients.

Installed in 2012, the Fink machine is the first privately funded district energy system in western Canada, noted Andreas Wintzer, Viessmann’s commercial and biomass manager.

“(The client) started 2012 with eight lines and right now he has 12 lines — 1.5 kilometres of supply line,” Wintzer said.

Last year, the system earned another client: the newly built conference centre owned and operated by the nearby Splatsin First Nation.

The Fink machine is able to supply energy below what it would cost to operate the same centre with natural gas.

“They built the whole conference centre without any (heating) redundancy,” Wintzer said. “It is a really, really cool building.”

Viessmann now has in the works a demonstration plant in Waterloo where they can educate people in commercial and residential biomass systems with an on-site, working system.

The goal is to have it operational by early 2017.

André Mech believes climate change will drive demand. As founder of the Toronto-based consulting firm Mech and Associates, he said we’re now in “uncharted territory” in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The public is going to demand a cleaner, more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, both for its own use and from corporations.

“If you’re not moving in the direction of going carbon neutral, then you’re going to be affecting shareholder value,” Mech said. “It’s just that simple.”

Biomass systems “run on the stuff that nobody wants — the slashings, the barks, the pine needles,” Mech said, and so rather than take away from an existing sector, biomass is creating a new industry, which could mean operations and maintenance jobs for Northerners.

Mech said his company’s systems operate 47 per cent more effectively than traditional one-way heating systems, and they’re cheaper than heating a home with natural gas.

The systems can even run on two days with wet, green fuel if needed — a helpful contingency if power goes out because of an emergency.

“You want to have your critical infrastructure always working; they need to be independent of the grid, because the nasty weather’s coming,” Mech said. “So, let’s create some jobs here, let’s save some money and make our communities more resilient.”