A new Biomass Energy Strategy for Yukon

Scott Kent, MLA for Riverdale NorthAs Submitted to the Whitehorse Star on Friday, February 26, 2016
by Scott Kent, Minister of Energy, Mines & Resources

Yukon has a long history of using wood as a source of energy. From the Gold Rush to the 1960s, many Yukoners found employment supplying massive quantities of wood to fuel the sternwheelers that navigated our waterways, and almost everyone relied on locally harvested wood to cook food and stay warm in winter.

Today, only 17 per cent of Yukon’s homes and buildings are heated by wood, and the Government of Yukon would like to see that number increase. To support that goal, we have released the Biomass Energy Strategy, which is designed to reduce our dependence on imported fuels by using a local renewable resource to meet our heating needs.

What exactly is biomass energy? Quite simply, it is energy created by burning organic matter. Here in Yukon, that typically means burning wood (or wood products) to heat our buildings.

Wood has the potential to be the most cost-effective heating fuel. Each year, Yukon families and businesses spend approximately $50 million on imported heating fuels. Heating with wood or wood by-products can cost half as much as heating with fossil fuels or electricity.

Heating with wood will help improve our energy self-sufficiency. Most of our communities are relatively close to abundant fuel wood sources. Using wood instead of oil or propane makes us less vulnerable to price increases or disruptions in fossil fuel supplies, all of which comes from outside the territory.

Developing a biomass industry will also create jobs and grow our economy. For every dollar spent on imported fossil fuels, about 60 cents leaves the territory. In contrast, almost all the money spent on wood stays here and supports local businesses. Even a modest switch from fossil fuels to biomass would result in significant opportunities for Yukon’s forestry and heating industries.

The Biomass Energy Strategy is a commitment of the 2009 Energy Strategy for Yukon, which supports replacing fossil fuels with cleaner renewable energy sources. It is also consistent with our 2009 Climate Change Action Plan, which recognizes that burning wood efficiently for heat produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning oil or propane.

When managed well, wood heat is considered to be nearly carbon neutral. When wood is burned, carbon is released into the atmosphere. As forests re-grow, an equivalent amount of carbon is removed from the atmosphere.

The Yukon government is already using biomass energy in two of its buildings. Dawson’s wastewater treatment plant uses a cost-effective biomass boiler that is fueled by locally produced wood chips, and the Whitehorse Correctional Centre has been fully heated by a wood pellet-fueled biomass system for the past four winters.

It’s important to note that the strategy’s main emphasis is on the use of modern, high-efficiency biomass heating systems in public and industrial buildings. These clean-burning systems need to meet CSA or EPA emission standards and must be correctly installed and properly used.

The Yukon government will protect the health of Yukoners and the environment by developing standards, guidelines and programs – including expanded air monitoring programs – to ensure that biomass appliances and fuels are efficient, clean and safe.

Yukon is not the only northern jurisdiction advocating a switch to biomass. As of late 2013, the Government of the Northwest Territories installed 14 modern biomass heating systems in public buildings. This has reduced its consumption of heating oil by six million litres, lowered its GHG emissions by approximately 15,000 tonnes, and significantly decreased its heating costs.

Some northern European countries are now meeting more than 20 per cent of their heat and power needs with biomass systems. The Yukon government would like to see the same thing happen here.

We are committed to launching biomass energy pilot projects in new or existing government infrastructure. Our ultimate goal is to help create long-term demand for biomass fuels, which will encourage Yukon businesses to invest and participate in a local biomass industry.

The Yukon Biomass Energy Strategy joins the recently adopted Independent Power Production policy and the Micro-generation policy as part of the Yukon government’s broader efforts to increase renewable energy use and to achieve energy self-reliance.

The strategy clearly demonstrates that there are strong economic and environmental arguments for switching from fossil fuels to wood to keep us warm during our cold winter months. I look forward to working with Yukoners, the private sector and industry organizations in the years ahead to achieve a strong, economically viable, safe and clean biomass energy industry for the territory.