Public problem, private solution: Biomass warehouse project reduces NWT carbon footprint

A wood pellet heating system that heats four buildings in Yellowknife has, after a year of operation, helped its largest customer, the territorial government, reduce its fuel oil consumption by 92%.

J&R Mechanical, a local plumbing and heating contractor, turned on the 390 kilowatt system in mid-March last year. It heats two company buildings and a veterinary clinic. But half of its capacity is used to heat one structure: the territorial government’s central warehouse on Byrne Road.

Rémi Gervais, head of energy policy and programs for the territory, said the government would use an average of 60,000 liters of fuel oil to heat the space for a year. Because it was connected to the biomass heating system instead, he said that figure dropped to 4,800 litres.

Woolgar’s district heating system also reduced the warehouse’s greenhouse gas emissions by 145 tonnes of carbon equivalent, he said, slightly less than the 160 tonne reduction that had been planned. The territory expects these discounts to increase as more customers are added to the system.

Woolgar’s district heating system is located behind the J&R Mechanical shop in Yellowknife. It consists of two large structures: a silo where the wood pellets are stored and a container where the boiler is kept. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

“It’s not necessarily something that’s the silver bullet,” Gervais said, noting that wood pellet heating systems don’t work for all spaces. But, he said, it’s one of the “most reliable and cost-effective” ways the territory has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Benefit in the years to come

J&R Mechanical entered the biomass business in 2019 when it established Enterprise Pellets – a separate company that supplies pellets, installs residential and commercial pellet boilers, sells heat and operates district heating plants.

Woolgar’s district heating system is behind their office on Woolgar Avenue and it has two main components: a shipping container in which the boiler is stored and a silo from which it draws the wood pellets.

At the front of the boiler, there’s a tiny window – about an inch in diameter – that offers a glimpse of a blazing combustion chamber that can, according to J&R Mechanical owner Ken Miller, reach temperatures of 900 vs.

A small window in the front of the pellet boiler offers a glimpse into its blazing combustion chamber. Temperatures inside can reach 900 C, Miller said. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

As the name suggests, the flames heat the water, and this water moves to nearby buildings through a series of underground pipes. The heat from that water is then transferred into each building’s space heating system, Miller said.

Miller said the entire project — from design to repaving a parking lot — cost $1.1 million.

He said the containerized boiler accounted for most of the cost, in part because it had to be shipped from Europe, assembled locally and built to Canadian standards.

“It’s not hugely profitable,” Miller said. At least not yet.

The territory awarded J&R Mechanical $274,000 for the project through a greenhouse grant program. Miller said the company paid the remaining 75% of the cost and the business plan was to pay off that capital investment in four to five years.

Miller said the pellet boiler, stored in a container, was the most expensive part of the project’s $1.1 million price tag. Its parts were shipped from Europe and assembled locally. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

“He wears his own. So it doesn’t cost us money to operate over time,” he said. “We will eventually pay for this capital investment and it will become more profitable.”

Miller said it has the capacity to heat one or two other buildings in the area, and if there’s more interest they could upgrade it.

How is it better

The drivers of interest in biomass heating are that it saves money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Miller and Gervais said.

Miller said the smoke from the wood pellets, which come from Alberta, contains water vapor and carbon dioxide that would have been released into the atmosphere as a tree decayed, if it had not been cut and processed. Sometimes the smoke can also contain ash, if the system is not properly maintained, he said.

“They are more efficient and technically they burn fuel better than a campfire.”

The territorial government’s central warehouse in Yellowknife would use 60,000 liters of fuel oil per year. In its first twelve months it hooked up to J&R Mechanical’s wood pellet heating system – which came down to just 4,800 litres. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Because the carbon comes from a “young, organic source,” Gervais said it’s counted differently — under Environment Canada and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines — than carbon from fossil fuels.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the territory’s Department of Infrastructure did not say how much it is spending on the heating contract, but that the price of heating was close to the cost of fuel oil. The purpose of the contract, he said, was to both reduce emissions and promote the local economy.

However, using bulk wood pellets is about 70% cheaper than using fuel oil at $1.50 a litre, he said.

Gervais also pointed out that pellets are a “fairly dense” type of fuel, meaning they can be shipped to remote communities in the NWT. while remaining profitable.

The Northwest Territories, a “leader” in biomass heating

The territory said the first place it installed an external wood pellet heating system was at the North Slave Correctional Facility in Yellowknife in 2006.

Since then, he has set up more than 40. In recent years, there have been facilities at the Chief Sunrise School of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, a territorial laboratory and a warehouse in Fort Simpson, the center Territorial Women’s Correctional Center in Fort Smith and the Territorial Hospital in Inuvik.

According to the territory’s most recent energy initiatives report, all of these systems reduced emissions by 11.7 kilotonnes in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The territory generated 1,377 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019 and must reduce emissions by 283 kilotonnes to meet its reduction targets.

The report says the Northwest Territories has “become a national leader” in biomass space heating. It also indicates that wood pellets make up 36% of the territorial government’s total heating fuel supply.

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