B.C.’s wood pellet power play – UW GROUP

B.C.’s wood pellet power play

British Columbians of a certain age may remember beehive burners. Most towns in B.C. with a sawmill had one. In the late 1990s, the B.C. government began phasing them out, and in their wake a wood pellet industry began to grow to deal with sawmill waste. 

It seemed like a win-win situation for the environment and forest industry – one that reduced air pollution, addressed the sawmill waste problem and provided a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source that was starting to displace coal.

As countries like Japan and the U.K. began displacing coal in thermal power plants with biomass, a market for wood pellets began to grow. About 60 per cent of Europe’s renewable energy is bioenergy, mostly wood biomass. 

But as the demand for wood pellets has grown over the last two decades, so too have concerns about the wood pellet industry and its impact on forests. 

B.C. now has about a dozen wood pellet plants and exports 2.3 million tonnes of pellets annually. Canadian wood pellet exports were valued at $347 million in 2020. 

Environmental groups like Stand.earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the U.S. have been stepping up campaigns against the industry, questioning the climate calculus that deems biomass to be carbon neutral. 

Forests are important carbon sinks, after all. If living trees are cut down to produce energy, the carbon neutrality of biomass may be called into question. That’s especially true if more trees are harvested than regrown. 

Currently, most of the inputs used in B.C. pellet mills come from sawmills and harvest residuals such as slash, which is typically burned anyway.

“Right now, if you’re burning it anyway, you might as well turn it into pellets,” said sustainable energy expert Chris Bataille, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. “But if you’re materially impacting the harvest, and you’re displacing wood or increasing the harvest, then definitely you are going to have carbon debt and net neutrality issues.” 

Drax Group (LON:DRX), the British power company that now owns seven pellet mills in B.C., has come under increased scrutiny from environmentalists over its alleged use of live whole trees to supply its growing pellet business. 

BIV recently toured one of Drax’s operations in the Okanagan to take a look at what goes into wood pellets made in B.C. For this story, BIV also requested an interview with B.C.’s chief forester to respond to some of the concerns raised by environmental groups. The Ministry of Forests said he was on leave and no one else was available for an interview. 


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