Pondering Pellets up North

By Anna Simet | August 07, 2012

For the August issue of Biomass Magazine, I wrote an article exploring the potential of utilizing biomass heat in northern communities, and it appears as though wood pellets offer the most promise.

In places like northern Alaska and Canada's Northwest Territories, the cost of fuel oil is ridiculous. I was told that in some Alaskan towns on the road system, it can equate to about 50 cents per kilowatt-hour (in North Dakota where I live, the cost of power is about 8 cents/kWh), and in some rural villages, it is nearly double that, up to 90 cent/kWh. The owner of a biomass boiler company up in Yellowknife in the NWT said shipping oil to some communities up there can end up costing over $1.40/kWh.

Anyway, there has been quite a bit of recent research delving into potential solutions for these communities—much of it done by the Arctic Energy Council—and it sounds like small, community-scale thermal systems might be the most appropriate solutions in many cases. Shipping pellets by barge might be an option in some places, but in a lot of instances it could end up being close to the cost of shipping a fossil fuel. Instead, some communities could build local, minisize pellet plants and use wood from nearby forests, or even trees or logs that fall into the rivers during the winter (which I guess is a substantial amount).

After I wrote that story, I began to notice lots of news on the same topic, and whether I am now just more aware (you buy a new car and suddenly everyone seems to be driving the same model)  whether it’s a coincidence, or  if things are just really starting to roll up there, it’s exciting to see. For example, just last week the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the Northwest Territories Minister of Environment and Natural Resources gave $5.7 million to Canada’s Northwest Territories, to “create opportunities for a sustainable woody biomass industry.”

Initially, the funding will go to complete forest inventories and sustainability analyses for broad forest areas, so these communities can directly benefit from the strategic development of biomass energy and forest resource development opportunities in the NWT.

I have a hunch that wood pellets will play a role in this program, as well as in many other plans to reduce energy costs in the northern communities that desperately need new, inexpensive, local solutions.

And of course, being renewable is the icing on the cake.