When the Lonsdale Energy Corporation launched seven years ago, the decision to use natural gas instead of other more renewable energy sources was a financial one. Natural gas is cheaper than other options.
But as the City of North Vancouver expands the municipally owned heating utility — Glenn Stainton, vice president of the LEC, said the system will serve 33 buildings by mid-2012 — diversifying energy sources becomes more and more of a reality.
For instance, the city installed 120 solar panels on the library that, when heat from the sun is available, can be used in priority for the system and in September 2010 geothermal drilling was completed for the new school district administration building.
Another potential heating source for district energy systems, although, according to Stainton, not one the LEC is entertaining at this time, is biomass energy.
Last month, as part of its ongoing Sustainable City Dialogues, the city hosted a Biomass 101 discussion at the library which looked at the concept, history, application and future of biomass and whether or not such a concept could be applied in North Vancouver.
Biomass energy is the process of converting biomass feedstock into either heat or electricity. The feedstock can be a host of different things but in B.C., typically, it’s wood. In urban areas, that means wood waste — bits and pieces left over from construction work, fallen wood in parks and saw mill waste. Feedstock can also be comprised of manufactured wood pellets but that option is more popular in Europe.
Taylor Zeeg, of Vancouver’s Compass Resource Management, was one of three speakers at the city-organized event. In a phone interview with The Outlook, he discussed the two different technologies, within the context of district energy, by which biomass can be applied.
The first is combustion, where wood is burnt at a high temperature creating hot water and steam for heat. This process is similar to that employed by the LEC, where natural gas heats water in four underground mini-plants before piping it to the buildings it services.
The other is gasification, where wood is burnt in an oxygen-controlled environment to produce a synthetic gas, which can then be burnt in a boiler or internal combustion engine to create electricity.
Biomass systems, added Zeeg, are routinely used in densely-populated areas such as downtown Seattle, Burnaby and at a soon-to-be launched bioenergy research project at the University of British Columbia.
In urban environments, biomass plants can even be “integrated into the fabric of community and become a learning-type facility,” added Stephen Sheppard, another Biomass 101 participant and professor in the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia.
“These places can be used to inform citizens about what’s happening,” said Sheppard.
“People without knowledge could resist a biomass plant in their community, asking ‘why are there trucks with wood chips in them?’ But the City of North Vancouver is out in front of it talking and making these things inclusive.”
An important lesson to remember, both participants stressed, is not just where such technology can be used but that it is understood as one potential method by which cities can expand energy options and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
“If the object is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, biomass is one way to that,” said Zeeg.
“There are lots of things we can do to reduce that. District energy is one way and biomass is one technology within that.”
So, regardless of its ability or inability to wholly solve a municipality’s fossil-fuel dependence, why isn’t biomass more popular than it is? What are the drawbacks of such a system?
According to Francis Ries, energy and emissions manager at Richmond’s Levelton Consultants and panelist at the event, history hasn’t always been the best of friends to the biomass process.
In the pre-petroleum days, said Ries, there were two carbon-based fuels people burnt: wood and coal. Neither, he added, were always burnt properly and would result in a lot of smoke. By the mid-point of the last century, steel towns and industrial cities became areas thick with smoke and people began making connections between the smoke and health problems.
And because biomass energy requires the burning of feedstock for energy and subsequently produces smoke, it has traditionally been considered dirty.
“Smoke became bad and any industry that had smoke was labelled as such. So, it makes sense that people have that smoky image in mind when thinking of biomass,” said Ries.
“Natural gas became the smoke-free option, it appeared to not to release any particles. But whenever you burn anything there will be particles.”
Because some amount of burning is inherent in a biomass system, Ries said it is the responsibility of a municipality to ensure it is using the best-performing biomass technologies. In doing so, the most stringent emissions controls will be in place, he said.
“The concern is slightly less in less populated areas but with any combustion that you’re doing, and natural gas and biomass are your two main options, you need to make sure you’re selecting the best technologies,” added Ries.
“There’s nothing out there that has no negative. All choices require a weighing of options including cost, air pollutant emissions and greenhouse gas emissions.”
For more on the city’s Sustainable City Dialogues, visit cnv.org and choose the “sustainability in the city” tab under the residents menu.