Though wood had been used to heat homes in the North since time immemorial, establishing a full-blown biomass industry in the Northwest Territories is a feat that’s only gotten underway in the last 10 or 15 years.
Now, thanks to pioneering entrepreneurs and a committed response from government, the NWT is at the leading edge of biomass in the country, with the highest per capita use of wood energy in Canada.
From residential pellet stoves to massive district heating systems, homeowners, businesses and governments looking to save on their energy bills are converting to biomass at ever-increasing rates in communities all across the NWT.
Yellowknife: Where It All Began
The use of wood-based products as a source of energy in modern large-scale infrastructure wasn’t introduced in the NWT until one man struggling to pay the heating fuel bills at his Yellowknife-based fibre-glass business decided to take the plunge and turn to biomass as a viable energy alternative.
Bruce Elliott, originally of New Zealand, created Arctic Green Energy over 10 years ago after proving he could heat his workshop with pellets and save money while doing it. Always having been interested in innovative energy solutions, Elliott decided to pitch to the territorial government his idea of using pellets to heat the North Slave Correctional Centre, which had been having heating issues at the time.
The GNWT scoffed at the idea, claiming it would be impossible to heat a building of that size with wood pellets, but Elliott persevered, putting $1 million of his own dollars on the line to prove that he could not only heat the building, but save the government 10 per cent on their heating bills.
“I saved them $300,000 and the government saw the light,” Elliott said.
The ultimate success of the project opened the door for pellet boilers to spring up across the territory. Soon after, the GNWT began working on its own territorial Biomass Strategy, installing boilers in its buildings throughout the territory and ensuring new buildings were being designed with biomass in mind.
The first of those were Elliott’s. Arctic Green Energy has since installed boilers for numerous other government and commercial projects, including Sir John Franklin high school, the city’s hockey arena and pool, and the first apartment building complex to change over to biomass. His company is now the largest of a growing group of pellet suppliers in the territory, bringing in a constant stream of 3 to 4 million tonnes of bulk pellets per year.
While the correctional facility remains the largest installation in the NWT to date, Elliott hopes to break his own record with a massive new district heating system in Yellowknife. The $20-million project would see the entire airport and Old Airport Rd. up to Range Lake hooked onto one 10-MW wood chip boiler system, connected by high-grade polypropylene pipes cached below a public walkway system.
The approximately 50 potential clients have already jumped at the prospect of saving on their massive heating bills, Elliott said, and work is set to begin this summer to have the first stage of the project working in time for next winter.
The project will be a joint venture with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, who will be responsible for the harvesting of local, fire-killed trees – made plentiful by last year’s record fire season – and their transformation into wood chips, creating local employment and revenue for the First Nation.
“I believe local communities have to be involved,” Elliott said. “It’s their trees.”
Elliott is so convinced of the project’s success, he believes there will be enough excess heat produced to be sold back to the grid as electricity for the city, which is currently struggling with reduced hydropower and aging diesel infrastructure.
After Elliott is done with the district heating system in Yellowknife, his company wants to set up a smaller district system in Fort Providence. He hopes it will cause a chain reaction, causing similar systems to pop up across the NWT, keeping money in the North.
“I actually see green energy as being the major employer of people in the North in the future,” Elliott said. “The way I look at it now is we export $500 million a year in money out of the territory to oil companies. Why not turn it around, go green and produce our own heat and electricity, all locally?”
Behchoko: First Nations Leading the Way
The Tlicho community of Behchoko emerged as a pioneer in the sector in 2013 when it officially cut the ribbon on its district heating system – the first in the territory to be owned and operated by an Aboriginal government.
The 540-kW system – installed by J&R Mechanical of Yellowknife and designed to run on pellets or wood chips – connects seven buildings, each owned by a variety of clients that include commercial businesses, GNWT properties and the First Nation’s own government infrastructure, and has reduced heating oil consumption by an estimated 200,000 litres per year.
But pioneering had it’s challenges, according to Gary Jaeb, who was project manager during the installation process. The varied client base added a heightened level of complexity to the large project by challenging the Tlicho Investment Corp. (TLI) to come up with a billing model that would generate enough profit to pay for the project within five years, but also pass along savings to the customer base.
“If it has been a community government just doing the project for themselves, billing wouldn’t have been a big issue; you’d just buy the pellets instead of diesel, and the savings would automatically accrue to you, as the owner,” Jaeb said. “But when billing other legal entities, it had to be metered.”
The result was a set price per unit of energy, to be reviewed annually at the end of the year to ensure that projected costs align with the actuals, that savings are passed on to the tenants, and that the project is still making money. Though TLI is not truly a for-profit company, it still needs to pay for the project and generate some profit for its shareholders; that is, the First Nation’s membership.
“The only way we could move forward was to agree on a starting point and review annually after audits were done,” Jaeb said.
For other Aboriginal governments or communities wanting to embark on similar projects in the North, Jaeb said it’s important to have the billing formula designed in advance when supplying heat to outside entities, and to ensure there is a three to five year follow-up plan in place so that local people are properly trained to successfully manage the system once any outside engineers, installers and managers have handed it off.
During the design of the project, the community also did a study on harvesting their own wood to make and dry chips for the boiler. Though the project continues to run on pellets shipped in from northern Alberta, Jaeb said the option is there for the community to create its own local wood marshalling yard, which could potentially supply chips for other boilers in the community. Apart from the TLI-owned system, other GNWT buildings are now also heated with pellets, including the schools and eventually the sportsplex, currently under construction.
“There’s a perpetual supply – at least 20 years – of fire-killed dry wood, which could be used for making chips,” Jaeb said. “That’s an opportunity for someone instead of importing pellets.”
South Slave: Biomass on the Rise
In Hay River, Andy Taylor of Taylor & Co. estimates that the use of wood and pellets has grown between 10 and 20 per cent every year over the last 15 years he’s been in the business.
“It started with just standard pellet stoves. The increase in pellet stoves went up about five per cent a year, and now commercial systems are coming more and more,” he said.
Taylor & Co. supplies pellets both bagged and bulk and does installations “right from the smallest pellet stove to commercial industry installations.”
Taylor got into the biomass business in around 2003 after seeing it work in Yellowknife and other places further south, like B.C. Since many people in the North were already committed to burning wood for heat, he believed a step toward pellets would have buy-in from communities in the South Slave as an alternate source of energy that doesn’t involve cutting wood.
“Because we’re in the mechanical industry, I think we’re always looking for new and innovative energy solutions, and we knew biomass was coming on stream,” he said. “Then I saw a system in Revelstoke and I thought this would be a good, viable solution for the Northwest Territories – an economically viable energy solution.”
Though many residents in Hay River, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence, Enterprise and Fort Resolution were already keen on burning wood, Taylor said investments made by the territorial government to install boilers in buildings across the region helped to establish a larger market for pellets that saw more private businesses and even some homes join his bulk supply network.
Now his client base is predominantly government, including several district heating systems connecting schools, recreational facilities and health centres, to name a few. That’s been followed by the high demand for a continual supply of bagged pellets to residents and, slowly but surely, more businesses coming online.
“The GNWT has really taken huge initiative on green energy,” Taylor said. “Now we just need to educate private industry that green is good. I’d like to see a lot of the private industry go to biomass because there are real savings. There’s an additional expense upfront, but the benefits are there.”
Taylor also wants to expand into bulk home delivery, but said that will take a shift in mindset to bring more homes on board to make the option more economically viable.
“That’s going to be the next step in biomass industry. I’ve been to Europe and seen their systems there, and we could do the same. It’s just a matter of education here.”
Over to the east in Fort Smith, cord wood continues to dominate residential use, though many people are now using pellet stoves in their homes and shipping in flats of bags from people like Taylor in Hay River.
Like other smaller communities across the territory, the GNWT has played a large role in introducing biomass into Fort Smith, where the health centre, Aurora College, high school and recreational centre are all hooked up to boiler systems.
In the commercial sector, pellet use has been slow to grow, but that doesn’t mean keen business owners haven’t found other ways to get off of diesel. Dennis Bevington of Stand Alone Energy Systems Ltd. converted his 5,000 square-foot commercial building – which houses a restaurant, fitness centre and his own office – onto a high-efficiency cord wood gasification boiler in 2003, making him the first business in town to get away from oil heating.
“The gasification boiler made this building possible,” Bevington said. “It was the first in Fort Smith, and without it, I couldn’t afford the heating bill.”
Though he’s considered pellets, the fact that a thriving firewood cutting industry in Fort Smith means there is a sustainable, local supply of quality cord wood available to him at all times, ensuring he is supporting the local economy while cutting out the costs of shipping.
“I wanted a building that was greenhouse gas friendly, and I also like to support local business. I buy all the firewood locally,” he said.
Bevington, who has been involved in politics in Fort Smith since he became a town councillor in the 1980s, said it took a lot of convincing to bring biomass into the community over the years, but with rising fuel costs and the advent of pellet use at the government-owned buildings, other groups are looking to install their own boilers, including the Fort Smith Métis Council, which is aiming to connect its three buildings onto a district system.
Bevington hopes to see other infrastructure come on board, like the federal building that houses Parks Canada, Service Canada and the post office, as well as the RCMP, and more commercial businesses. A local pellet industry could encourage that, he said.
“We should consider ourselves for a small pellet plant here,” he said. “We have a fairly good sized forest here that could maintain a pellet industry.”
But even with cord wood, Bevington said more people could convert to biomass, looking to his own gasification boiler as a model. Despite having access to relatively cheap hydroelectricity, he estimates the community is spending around $5 million each year on fuel, making Fort Smith a potential haven for biomass entrepreneurs.
“There are great opportunities here, we just need to create more of a local market,” he said. “Cord wood is so cheap – much cheaper than pellets – and there are a few people making money in an organized fashion with their firewood operations, but we could have a lot more.
“Anything we do to maximize biomass use will turn out to be local employment,” he said.