Biomass fu­els a unique op­por­tu­nity for Man­i­toba

Winnipeg Free Press - - TANK - NAZIM CICEK

GROW­ING up in the scenic small city of Feld­kirch, Aus­tria, in the 1970s and early ’80s, I re­mem­ber stok­ing our wood- and coal-burn­ing oven dur­ing the snowy win­ter months, and hav­ing the job of dis­pos­ing of the ash. To this day, I en­joy the smell of burn­ing wood, pok­ing at a flam­ing fire, and lis­ten­ing to the crackle.

To my sur­prise, dur­ing a re­cent tour of a new re­search fa­cil­ity here at the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba, I dis­cov­ered that the biomass pel­let boiler and power gen­er­a­tion sys­tem, re­cently com­mis­sioned by Dr. Qiang Zhang, orig­i­nated from Aus­tria, not far from where I grew up. The com­pany (ÖkoFen Pel­let Heat­ing) is one of 160 within the Eco-En­ergy Clus­ter in the state of Up­per Aus­tria (or Oberöster­re­ich), which em­ploys 8,800 peo­ple and gen­er­ates $3 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.

The state of Up­per Aus­tria presents a com­pelling case study, shed­ding light on what might be pos­si­ble here in Man­i­toba when it comes to re­new­able heat­ing. With a pop­u­la­tion of 1.4 mil­lion and sim­i­lar GDP to Man­i­toba, Up­per Aus­tria can boast of a 47 per cent share of re­new­able heat­ing in the over­all en­ergy mix, largely ow­ing to the use of biomass in the form of wood pel­lets, wood chips, fire logs and whole trees. With 41 per cent of its land area cov­ered by forests, the re­gion has ag­gres­sively moved to biomass heat­ing with a di­verse set of eco­nomic in­cen­tives, state reg­u­la­tions, emis­sion and ef­fi­ciency stan­dards and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns.

Up­per Aus­tria has set a tar­get of space heat­ing with 100 per cent re­new­able sources by 2030.

It is home to tech­nol­ogy providers with global lead­er­ship in the ar­eas of au­to­matic pel­let heat­ing sys­tems for sin­gle-fam­ily homes, au­to­matic wood chip heat­ing sys­tems for com­mer­cial spa­ces and in­sti­tu­tional build­ings, low-emis­sion fire­wood boil­ers for ru­ral build­ings, and larger-scale dis­trict heat­ing sys­tems us­ing a va­ri­ety of biomass sources. Be­cause of pro­gres­sively more strin­gent ef­fi­ciency and emis­sion stan­dards set by the gov­ern­ment, these new-age biomass boil­ers are ex­ceed­ing 93 per cent ef­fi­ciency and meet strict en­vi­ron­men­tal and fire safety reg­u­la­tions.

The re­gional eco­nomic gains have been im­pres­sive, with over 50,000 mod­ern biomass boil­ers man­u­fac­tured an­nu­ally (a 25 per cent mar­ket share in the Euro­pean Union), sus­tain­ing 4,500 full-time biomass heat­ing-re­lated jobs and dis­plac­ing $1.6 bil­lion in fos­sil fuel im­ports. The avoided CO2 emis­sions add up to 1.7 mil­lion tonnes per year, which could be worth an­other

$85 mil­lion in an­nual car­bon cred­its (at $50/tonne of CO2).

Although Man­i­toba does not have a sim­i­lar pro­file in terms of its forestry sec­tor and avail­abil­ity of wood biomass, we do have a rather unique op­por­tu­nity with re­spect to an­other form of nat­u­ral plant ma­te­rial. The com­bi­na­tion of wet­land biomass (cat­tails, bul­rushes, reeds and prairie grasses) and agri­cul­tural crop residue (wheat, canola and flax straw) that can be sus­tain­ably har­vested, adds up to over 11 mil­lion tonnes per year. In terms of en­ergy con­tent, this rep­re­sents more than twice the amount of nat­u­ral gas con­sumed within the entire prov­ince.

In a re­cent study at the U of M, our group showed that fuel pel­lets made from cat­tails har­vested at a lo­cal wet­land proved to have sim­i­lar en­ergy con­tent to stan­dard wood pel­lets, re­quired no ad­di­tional binders, and demon­strated com­pa­ra­ble dura­bil­ity dur­ing trans­port. The higher-than­stan­dard ash con­tent of these pel­lets (com­pared to com­mer­cial wood pel­lets) poses a chal­lenge in terms of burn­ing ef­fi­ciency, emis­sions and boiler main­te­nance. Cur­rent re­search in this area aims to pro­vide so­lu­tions through changes in boiler op­er­a­tion, test­ing a va­ri­ety of pel­let blends (wood, cat­tails, card­board, straw) and op­ti­miz­ing biomass har­vest times and meth­ods.

An ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of har­vest­ing wet­land biomass for bioen­ergy ap­pli­ca­tions is the re­moval of ex­ces­sive nu­tri­ents (par­tic­u­larly phos­pho­rus) from the land­scape. Phos­pho­rus is the pre­cur­sor to al­gal blooms in our lakes and rivers and its re­moval from the wa­ter­shed is crit­i­cal in re­duc­ing the fre­quency and sever­ity of these blooms. Every tonne of biomass har­vested for a bioen­ergy ap­pli­ca­tion would re­sult in 1.5 to three kilo­grams of phos­pho­rus taken off the Man­i­toba land­scape. Phos­pho­rus re­cov­ery from biomass ash is a well­stud­ied topic and prom­ises to al­low fu­ture ex­trac­tion from stored ash and the po­ten­tial gen­er­a­tion of a re­new­able fer­til­izer prod­uct.

As shown by the 53,000 au­to­matic biomass boil­ers in op­er­a­tion in homes and build­ings in just one re­gion of Aus­tria, a fast tran­si­tion to re­new­able heat is pos­si­ble. In the span of 20 years, biomass heat­ing grew six­fold, while the use of heat­ing oil and nat­u­ral gas dropped dras­ti­cally. Tech­no­log­i­cal and reg­u­la­tory changes and the grass­roots de­mand for more sus­tain­able means of heat­ing drove this dis­rup­tive change.

Start­ing with in­sti­tu­tional and com­mer­cial set­tings (pub­lic build­ings, schools, com­mu­nity cen­tres, ware­houses, shop floors) and mov­ing to sin­gle-home ap­pli­ca­tions and ul­ti­mately dis­trict heat­ing, Man­i­toba can fol­low a sim­i­lar path.

The au­to­matic pel­let fur­nace in the base­ment might not have the sights, smells and sounds of the tra­di­tional fire­place, but it will warm our homes and should warm our hearts in know­ing that this is truly a green and Man­i­toba-made so­lu­tion.

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