Brewmasters of biomass

By Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison – Northern News Services

Brewmasters of biomass

Wayne McKay looks into the feed bin where chipped biomass is mixed at the wood pellet production demonstration project at Checkpoint. Photo: Department of Environment and Natural Resources

The second phase of the wood pellet production demonstration project in Check Point, at the intersection of highways 1 and 7, is nearly complete, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is getting ready to send its samples to a laboratory in Alberta to test their viability.

Ivan Simons, a researcher who led the project with his partner Wayne McKay, said the testing marks the end of the project, but could be just the beginning of an alternative energy industry in the NWT.

“We’re doing something that’s never been done in the territory before,” he said. “We are becoming brewmasters of biomass material.”

For the past year, HR Thomson Consultants, a joint enterprise of Simons and McKay, created and tested wood pellets made from NWT-sourced material.

Their material included used paper and cardboard from the dump in Yellowknife, grass, sawdust from Patterson’s Sawmill in Hay River and clearing residue from the NWT Power Corp and Department of Transportation projects.

Bryan Pelkey, an alternative energy specialist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the demonstration project focuses on research and development and as of yet, there are no plans to open a production plant.

“(The department) will be looking at possibilities for this type of operation in the NWT, but ultimately, a commercial pellet production venture will be up to entrepreneurs and the business community to pursue,” he said.

The demonstration plant used by Simons and McKay, located about an hour southeast of Fort Simpson, is scheduled to be shut down in March 2012. At that point, the department will evaluate what opportunities exist, Pelkey said.

Simons said that although the plant will be decommissioned, biomass is still a natural fit for the territory’s energy needs. He didn’t rule out further involvement with wood pellet production, but said HR Thomson Consultants would wait to see the results of the lab tests and decide from there.

“I think it’s a good direction to go. People up here know the trees, know the land,” he said.

Sample pellets to be tested

In the meantime, the sample pellets produced by his company will be tested for their viability as a heating fuel. Pelkey said the research facility, which they haven’t formalized a contract with and can’t name at this time, will test for ash content, heating value, density, durability and moisture content, among other things.

He said the testing will help provide a knowledge base, but added a wood pellet manufacturing industry has to be supported by a foresting industry.

“This is something relatively new to the NWT,” he said.

In addition, the high cost of doing business in the North could put the industry at a disadvantage with its competitors to the south, which currently supply wood pellets to the territory.

One advantage would be enhanced supply security for the growing market of pellet users, he said, and another would be shorter transportation distances for locally-based plants.

The wood pellet production demonstration project is part of the NWT Biomass Energy Strategy and also a key part of the territory’s greenhouse gas strategy and energy plan, Pelkey said.

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