Wood Pellets in
Newfoundland and Labrador

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The New Democratic Party (NDP) in Newfoundland is promoting the wood pellet industry -- so it is time to address the topic in more detail. Feedback on this draft is welcome.

Forest Background

Newfoundland and Labrador was originally covered with numerous climax forests of pine and fir which no doubt inspired the phrase "When sun rays crown thy pine clad hills" in the Ode to Newfoundland. These forests were maintained with regular forest fires that cleaned out the under brush.

Today's forests are the unnatural results of gross mismanagement and neglect. The original pine forests were clear cut and what grew back were predominately spruce and fir. Forest fires were extinguished where possible, preventing the return of natural succession. The pulp and paper industry took advantage of the spruce and ground them into pulp for newspaper, meanwhile tablet PCs and the internet have profoundly changed the way people read news relegating pulp to a minor role. This decline is happening everywhere, for example, Russian pulp production down 9% in 2013.

The long term goal should be a return to healthy climax forest ecosystems with stands of large, fire resistant mature pine and balsam fir forests. Climax ecosystems developed over millions of years so it is reasonable to believe that it is more stable than anything we could engineer. The least stable system is a single species (e.g. black spruce or fir), all the same age, that can be wiped out in a single epidemic of spruce budworm and hemlock looper.

The article Characterization of old wet boreal forests, with an example from balsam fir forests of western Newfoundland has a good description of old forest:

"A comparison of 40-, 60-, and ?80-year-old forests in Newfoundland indicated that the oldest stage of balsam fir forests had a distinctly different structure, including more large dead and fallen wood, a more irregular canopy including gaps, a more diverse ground flora, more moss ground cover, a more variable tree height, taller snags, fewer white birch snags, and fewer deciduous small trees. These differences were reflected in various plant and animal faunas that were distinct in the old forest including: flowering plants, beetles, Collembola, oribatid mites, mammals, and birds. Several species of plants and animals were only found in the oldest forest stands, including a high percentage among the arthropods. Suggested indicator species at the stand level include black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) and marten (Martes americana)."

Step One

Get rid of the pulp and paper industry. It is highly polluting and there are better things to do with natural resources than to grind them up into slurry for export. There must also be a concerted effort to find alternate employment for the residents of former paper mill communities.

The environmental mess needs immediate attention. The article What the AbitibiBowater decision could mean for future oil sands remediation points out that if you defer the cleanup until the end-of-life, companies can just declare bankruptcy and tax payers have to foot the entire bill. This in effect is a massive corporate subsidy.

The CBC article "N.L. shouldn't pay for $100M mill cleanup, say residents" is typical - tax payers generally feel that polluters should clean up the mess, just as they expect employers should fund pensions. Unfortunately, modern corporations are in the business of making profits, even if this profit is in the form of public theft.

As a matter of principle, This 100 million should be spent locally. Rather than hiring a large international corporation like AMEC which is again looking for substantial profit, the NL Government under the guidance of occupation health and safety, trains local workers for remediation work, provides state-of-the art protective euiplment and monitoring devices, and let each community clean up their own neighbourhood. This seems far better than giving operational loans to failing companies who are too risky even for bank loans.

Step Two

Begin large scale operations to transform the forests into something more useful and stable. This would include:

The trees used for thinning, provided they are too small for dimensional lumber, would be ideal input for insulation fiber or heating pellet production. Stumps and waste from lumber operations could also be used as pellet feedstocks.

Step Three

Create guaranteed local baseline demands to support local industry. This would include the following:

There are a few issues here. First is the need for a buy local policy which will upset other jurisdictions. We are not talking about telling private companies they can't buy cheap stuff from China. We are saying that when tax revenues collected from Newfoundlanders are spent, they should be spent locally since it reduces welfare and unemployment, and the incomes are again taxed. Futhermore, most of those incomes would be spent in local communities.

Since we are part of Canada, it is also ethical to insist that if it is not possible to buy locally, then Atlantic Canada should be the next preference, followed by the rest of Canada.

The second major issue is the need to reign in corporate greed. This means setting maximum fair prices for things like pellets and furniture. The best way to do this with pellets is to have an alternate heat source (perhaps electric) and a policy that we will use whatever is cheaper. There is a balance here in paying enough to ensure that companies that invest in manufacturing equipment can pay the interest in their loans and not abusing the tax payer with thousand dollar wooden chairs or other creative outrages.

Step Four

Grow the residential demand for pellet heating via rebates. This cannot be led by Nalcor, the local power generation monopoly, since they have a vested interest in avoiding the destruction of electric demand due to their involvement in Muskrat Falls.

This article, Norwegian households? perception of wood pellet stove compared to air-to-air heat pump and electric heating states, "Norwegian public investment in the construction of hydropower plants between 1960 and 1990 provided a large capacity of cheap electricity and consequently led to an increased dependency on electricity for heating. Approximately 70% of Norwegian households use electricity as the main heating source, especially in the residential sector" and this "In 2003, Enova, established in 2001 as a public enterprise owned by the OED (Ministry of Petroleum and Energy), ran a subsidy scheme that provided for up to 20% of the total investment costs for all types of heat pumps and wood pellet heating solutions.The number of installations of air-to-air heat pumps more than doubled between 2002 and 2003. This boost was mainly caused by subsidies accompanied by an increase in the price of electricity"

Implementing a 20% heat pump and pellet stove rebate scheme in Newfoundland would probably have a similar effect since both countries have similar electricity rates (1.00 NOK = 0.17 CAD).

Step Five

Rethink the lumber industry. Metric dimensions? Birch hardwood products? Can the pellet machines also make fiber to replace fiberglass insulation in building? Can we encourage timber frame construction? Produce insulated structural panels?

Step Six

Develop a new map of exploitable forests and allocate them for specific purposes, along with an appropriate permitting systems. These should include:

This reallocation of land usage (the pulp and paper industry controlled vast quantities of land) should be developed in conjunction with land reform. See Land Reform for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Environmental Issues

The November 2012 article "Sustainability Impact Assessment on the Production and Use of Different Wood and Fossil Fuels Employed for Energy Production in North Karelia, Finland" is worth reading because the Finish climate and use of wood stoves is similar to that of rural Newfoundland.

Demand Issues

The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) commissioned a study titled Assessing the NWT Energy Opportunity for Wood Biomass. The note that the current production (2009) of 12,000 tons per year of wood pellets is not enough to sustain wood pellet manufacturing, and that demand must be increased to 30,000 tons per year. A large pellet mill can produce 200,000 tons per year.

They conclude and recommend:

Required tonnage per building

A new, large residential home in Newfoundland uses about 30,000 kWh a year for heat. This is approximately 100GJ. According to the GNWT report above, the best dry wood pellets have a usable net heating value of 15.8 GJ per ton. This would imply needing six tons of pellets. The web site hearth.com has a thread called "How many tons of pellets to order for a season?" that discusses usage between 3 and 8 tons per year with most people mentioning something between 3 and 4 tons in the Northern USA.