Energy costs are the major driver behind the rising cost of living in the Northwest Territories, where distance and isolation shackle communities to an expensive supply chain of oil and gas to keep the lights on and the furnace running during those dark, cold winters.
But despite the unfathomable distances between communities, a lack of permanent transportation infrastructure, and the longest winters in the world, entrepreneurs and communities are breaking ground when it comes to the energy innovations they need to keep homes, businesses and public buildings running.
Biomass is at the forefront of those efforts, placing the Northwest Territories at the leading edge of the industry in terms of innovation. Part necessity, part ingenuity, business owners in even the most remote regions are harnessing top-of-the-line biomass technologies to heat everything from First Nations government buildings to apartment blocks, to health centres and elders’ care homes.
It’s a movement that’s managed to cut costs, create jobs and capitalize on the same source of warmth that’s heated cabins and camps across the North for millennia, making the Northwest Territories perfectly poised to provide lessons in self-reliance for the rest of the country.
Barging Into Business: Norman Wells
When Brian Lickoch first began looking into the feasibility of bringing wood pellets into his hometown of Norman Wells, he quickly lost faith in the idea. Barging loads up the Mackenzie River into a town that sits off-limits to vehicle traffic until it’s cold enough to build an ice road seemed risky, if not impossible.
That was until the oil and gas company that had provided the community with its source of heating fuel for decades announced it would be pulling the plug. Suddenly the need for an alternative became an imminent reality.
“The natural gas was being shut down in Norman Wells,” Lickoch said. “We had to convert to something, so I thought it was a good opportunity to convert to biomass.”
Lickoch decided to set up a few silos in the community, anticipating that once pellets were brought in, more people would start getting interested in making the conversion to biomass. But even he was unprepared for how quickly it took off.
“It went bananas,” he said. “The first year I brought in 80 tonnes, and then I went up to 500 tonnes, and then I expanded last summer and put up five more, so we’re at 1,000 tonnes.”
Taking advantage of the summer marine transport system, Lickoch’s company Green Energy NWT hires a Hay River trucking company to haul pellets from a plant in La Crete in northern Alberta to Fort Simpson, where they are loaded onto a Cooper’s barge and shipped north by river to Norman Wells. At 200 tonnes per trip, that usually makes five truck loads per barge, and five barges a year. Last year, he also hauled 80 tonnes up on the winter road, though going that route is more expensive.
Lickoch now delivers bulk to customers throughout the community with his own truck. Though he has more commercial clients than any other sector, the recent move onto biomass by the territorial government has made the combined consumption at the local school, maintenance shop and air terminal his biggest customer.
Business continues to boom, with the largest biomass installation in the Northwest Territories currently underway in Norman Wells. The new workers camp will be heated entirely by wood pellets, with a series of 10 cascaded boiler units producing a whopping 560 kilowatts of energy for the lodge.
While Lickoch is available to do the installs and maintenance, he leaves it up to the customers to decide what contractors they want to hire. Apart from bulk, Lickoch also sells bags to homeowners with their own pellet stoves, at cost.
Four years in, Lickoch said he is close to maxing out on his clientele in the community of around 800, but says the possibility to expand outward into other communities in the region is on the table, should people want to make the switch over to biomass.
Though the startup costs of a pellet boiler system can be pricey, he said the 40 to 50 per cent savings on heating costs make it worth it.
“The conversions cost more, but in the long run there’s payback and then you’re money ahead,” he said.
To other communities and entrepreneurs considering biomass, he has simple advice:
“If you set your mind to it, it’ll work,” he said. “Anybody that wants to do it, it’s a good way to go.”
Firing Up: Inuvik
Lickoch’s enthusiasm is contagious – so much that it actually managed to travel 450 km north to Inuvik in the Beaufort Delta, where property owner Vince Brown not only converted his own Boot Lake apartment building to pellet heat, but began his own similar storage and distribution network.
Just one year into the business, Brown’s company Arctic Restoration Corp. hooked up its first biomass client this winter: Aurora Expediting Services, located near the airport. Now he’s converting a second apartment building, Mackenzie Apartments, this spring.
With 100 tonnes of storage, equipment for loading and unloading, and a delivery truck, Brown is open for business across the region and hoping more customers will come online.
“We’re looking for more,” he said. “We’d like to expand, absolutely.”
Considering the staggering increase in energy costs experienced in Inuvik since 2012, when the price of gas nearly doubled, Brown has few doubts that biomass would mean major savings for government, commercial and residential sectors in the region. Since making the conversion at his own properties, he’s saved in excess of 30 per cent.
“If people are longer-term thinking or building a new building, they should seriously consider wood pellets,” Brown said. “That’s the time when it’s most cost-effective to put it in; not to retrofit an old one, but when you have a new building coming.”
Despite huge opportunities to expand the industry in the region, bringing biomass up to the tundra has not been without its challenges. Trucks from northern B.C. and Alberta make a 5,000-km round trip to get pellets into Brown’s hoppers – an expensive and complex dance around the schedules of trucking companies and the ferry crossings and ice bridges of the Dempster Highway.
“Just organizing the trucking, there’s a variety of things,” Brown said. “You have to pick a time to get a decent price for freight and when those types of trucks aren’t busy, so you have to pick a time not in the summer or the fall, because most of the grain trucks are going to be working mad in harvest season. Then there’s finding and selecting a trucking outfit that’s familiar with the Dempster, driving up here and the conditions and all that. And it’s just about getting the right price.”
That said, when it comes to cost savings and the pleasure of knowing biomass is a sustainable heating method, Brown said the benefits easily outweigh the startup costs and learning curve of trying something new.
“It saves money, it’s environmentally friendly, renewable – it’s a benefit for everybody,” he said.
Shifting Toward Self-Reliance: Fort McPherson
Further south in the Beaufort Delta on the banks of the Peel River, things are heating up in the Gwich’in community of Fort McPherson, where dreams of a sustainable district heating system run entirely off of locally sourced biomass products are creeping closer to reality.
In 2013, the Tetlit Gwich’in Council – the local First Nation government – decided to convert their band office and healthcare facility to a biomass heated boiler in order to bolster the local timber economy and save money on expensive heating bills.
“Before all this started, we were hooked up to a furnace supplied by fossil fuel,” said Johnny Kay, project manager for the Tetlit Gwich’in Council. “After we hooked up the boiler and started using wood and pellets, the cost went down.”
But rather than trucking in loads of pellets, the community decided to create its own fuel supply right on-site, using locally sourced willows and waste from its sawmill as wood chips in their system, which is able to accommodate all sorts of biomass sources.
“Everything we need was right in our own backyard,” Kay said. “We had the natural resources.”
The wood chip side of the equation is still in the pilot stages as the community works through its inexperience toward establishing a large-scale drying and chipping system for its willows that will provide the necessary 120 tonnes of fuel each winter.
“Once we find a good way of doing that, where it’s properly chipped and screened and not contaminated with any soil or mud, we’ll switch to that,” Kay said. “But we’re still in the planning stages. It’s a learning process for everybody.”
For now, the boiler runs on local cordwood and pellets, along with willow chips. Not only has it saved the community 30 to 40 per cent on its heating bills, but it has provided employment for locals who want to work sustainably harvesting fuel from the surrounding forest.
“That way, the money stays local. Whatever projects we get, the money stays in the community, whereas before we were only paying the supplier for the fuel,” Kay said. “Now the money is spread out in the community and stays within the Northwest Territories.”
Still, the greatest benefit Kay has noticed is the look on the elders’ faces when they see the biomass system in action, reminding them of what it used to be like when all homes ran on wood heat and the community was self-reliant.
“When the boiler is operating and they see the smoke coming of the stack, locals like to sit and talk and say it makes them feel good. They know it’s going to be warm,” Kay said. “It’s something that’s working, and it’s owned by the community. They see community members hauling wood, young boys cutting wood, so it helps local youth. So they’re happy.
“That in itself speaks volumes.”