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N.S. debate over plans to harvest trees for biomass


December 21, 2009
By By Krista Armstrong The Canadian Press

Dec. 21, 2009, Halifax – A debate is
brewing between the Nova Scotia government, focus groups and environmentalists
over the sustainability of harvesting trees and burning low-grade wood to meet
the province’s energy needs.



Dec. 21, 2009, Halifax – A debate is
brewing between the Nova Scotia government, focus groups and environmentalists
over the sustainability of harvesting trees and burning low-grade wood to meet
the province’s energy needs.

This energy source, known as
biomass, has been used for heat and electricity in Europe for years and, on a
small scale, in many Canadian provinces. It is being recommended by a
government-commissioned consultation team as a component of a provincewide
renewable energy strategy, but some worry that Nova Scotia doesn’t have the
necessary regulations in place to go ahead with any large-scale forest biomass
projects.

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Prof. David Wheeler, dean of the
faculty of management at Dalhousie University and leader of the consultation
team, says biomass will help the province achieve its goal of producing 25 per
cent of its electricity from renewable energy generation by 2015. In an interim
report released last week, he said biomass would generate about 15 per cent of
the province’s renewable energy in the short term, with large-scale and
community wind farms making up the additional 85 per cent.

In an interview, Wheeler said biomass
could make significant contributions economically, ecologically and socially to
the province, provided it is done to the “highest possible standards.” He said
biomass is a relatively cheap energy source because it uses non-commercial
wood, such as knotty trees, tree stumps and branches, to fuel power plants.

It also helps keep consumer energy
prices down, Wheeler said, and helps the province meet its climate change goals
by replacing burned fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, that release carbon
dioxide into the air. It may also bring opportunity to small and rural
communities since they will be able to generate and sell power to the province,
maintaining and creating jobs.

“If money is being diverted, for
example, out of the Colombian economy for purchasing coal and, instead, we’re
putting that money into the Nova Scotia economy to produce forestry
products  …  to the highest possible environmental
standards, that’s a win-win,’’ he said. “So we just have to define what those
highest possible standards are.’’

But without knowing how the highest
possible environmental standards will be defined, Jamie Simpson, a forester
with Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre, can’t endorse large-scale biomass
forestry as a renewable energy solution. Simpson worries that unregulated
whole-tree harvesting could remove the tree tops, stumps and branches that
traditional forestry leaves behind, which he said provide needed nutrients and
shade to the soil.

Guidelines for biomass harvesting
are being drafted by the province’s Department of Natural Resources, but
Simpson said they are for Crown land and will not apply to private lots.

“And they’re only guidelines,’’ said
Simpson.

A lack of provincial regulation for
biomass harvesting is also a concern for some in Ontario, which has begun to
use renewable energy sources after committing to shut down all of its
coal-fired plants.

Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey
Foundation, a charitable organization that supports environmental
sustainability in forestry practice, said without provincial regulations,
there’s a risk that people won’t understand the importance of retaining those
parts of the tree that are necessary to regenerate forests.

“I don’t think the (Ontario)
government really appreciates the risks that are involved,’’ Lourie said.

Simpson and Lourie both say the
long-term economic viability of the Canadian forestry industry may be hindered
by a reliance on biomass for energy since it might impede Canada’s capacity to
provide for more lucrative endeavours, such as supplying lumber to the U.S.
housing market.

“As anyone knows, in terms of
Canada’s role in resources, the last thing you want to be doing is exploiting
resources at the lowest point on the value chain,’’ said Lourie.

Lourie said biomass makes sense for
small plants that are situated near forest operations.

Nova Scotia Power has been following
the debate and is testing burning biomass wood pellets with coal at some of
their power plants with good results, says Robin McAdam, executive
vice-president of sustainability for the company.

Wheeler’s final report is due to the
Nova Scotia government by the end of the year.


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