Hearings held for Nova Scotia biomass plant

By Anna Austin
Posted July 27, 2010, at 4:30 p.m. CST

Even in a province where woodlands cover around 78 percent of its total land area, the sustainability of forest-derived biomass power is in question.

Hearings for a new $200 million biomass cogeneration power plant proposed by Nova Scotia Power Inc. and NewPage Corp. kicked off July 26, a project which cannot proceed without approval from the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. While developers and proponents tout the project's many potential benefits, opponents are claiming the plant would allow for an unacceptably high level of forest biomass harvesting or "clearcutting," as well as result in increased carbon emissions.

The 60 megawatt plant, which would be built at the Cape Brenton paper mill, would require 650,000 metric tons of woody biomass each year and would be able to provide about 3 percent of Nova Scotia's total power needs, while also meeting the paper mill's steam demands. Additionally, the project would create an estimated 150 new jobs in northern Nova Scotia, primarily in the forestry sector, while maintaining the mill's existing workforce of approximately 550 employees. The proposed plant would be located in the heart of a productive forest area of the province, so infrastructure and supply chains to provide wood products, including biomass fuel, already exist.

Despite its many potential benefits, there is staunch opposition to the project, mainly because of forest sustainability concerns. For example, Nova Scotia environmental activist organization Ecology Action Centre has called for a moratorium on burning forest biomass for electricity, suggesting a five-year hiatus. This would allow the province to make decisions about whether forest biomass is an acceptable source of renewable energy and at what scale, according to Jamie Simpson, EAC member. The EAC has also pointed out that numerous scientific studies show that clearcutting generally reduces carbon storage in forests, both by reducing the age of forests and by accelerating the decomposition of organic matter stored in forest soil.

On the other hand, the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia released a study earlier this summer that found that clearcutting is down substantially in Nova Scotia, after concerns were raised about the high levels of clearcutting thought to be occurring throughout the province in recent years. FPANS found that data influencing clearcutting concerns was inaccurate. "Basically, we discovered that unless reported otherwise, harvesting is just put under the clearcut category for no reason," said Steve Talbot, executive director of FPANS. The difference between clearcutting in the FPANS study and the national database was more than 20 percent.

NewPage said the project would indeed increase clearcutting, but by less than 5 percent, a level that the company said a rigorous analysis determined was sustainable and also indicated Nova Scotia forests could actually support an increase beyond this. NewPage expects the project to result in an annual increase in harvest area of about one-tenth of 1 percent of the land it currently manages.

The hearing is expected to wrap up July 30 with a tour of the proposed plant site, and NewPage and NSP hope to have a ruling by the beginning of October.