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Op-ed: Biomass fuels a unique opportunity for Manitoba

November 1, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed written by biosystems engineering professor Nazim Cicek. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Oct. 31, 2017. 


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-than-standard 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 well-studied 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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