From Fossil Fuel to Fibre: Moving Canada's Forest Bioeconomy Forward

September 19, 2011
Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville, ON

Over the past decade the Canadian forest industry has experienced a significant down turn and Canada’s share in global markets for traditional forest products has decreased substantially. At the same time, requirements for green energy, transportation fuels, and other bio-products have increased resulting in new market opportunities for biofibre use. In this session, we will discuss national and provincial government approaches and programs that have been put in place to move the bioeconomy forward. We will also look at how the Canadian forest industry is transitioning to the new bioeconomy. Strategies for biofibre use will be discussed with respect to ecological, economic, and social criteria by a panel of experts from national and provincial governments, industry leaders, and not-for-profit organizations.

1. Opportunities and challenges for realizing our forest bioenergy potential

Tat Smith, Professor and Dean Emeritus, Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, 33 Willcocks St, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3B3,

Mitigation of climate change, scarcity and high prices of fossil fuels and securing of energy supplies have brought forests into focus in global energy strategies. If produced sustainably, biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the transport sector, diversify Canada’s energy supplies, contribute to domestic energy security, reduce the risk of disease and wildfire, and provide opportunities for investment, economic growth, and job creation in the economy of Ontario. Within this context, the efficient use of wood biomass as a renewable energy resource is one favourable strategy for substituting use of non-renewable fossil fuel energy resources. Estimates of Canadian forest biomass indicate about 98 million dry tonnes per year of biomass are available, equivalent to some 1.8 EJ/yr. This is adequate to satisfy 13% of Canada’s 2010 primary energy demand. Given this availability, why has there been relatively little penetration of biomass in the primary energy sector? The lack of penetration is less due to a lack of biomass availability than an abundance of other cost-competitive sources of energy, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower. A lack of bioenergy systems and infrastructure development, technical information sharing, Canada’s vast geography, and sustainable harvest concerns pose technical and non-technical barriers. There is a need for the rapid integration and development of bioenergy with the primary energy sector. Industry and research organizations need to develop new knowledge and synthesize information across Canada and the world, so that the bioenergy sector can deploy rapidly in step with societal demand. There is a wealth of technical knowledge, innovation, and information already available within Canada and among international research organizations; with effective synthesis, integration and dissemination, this technical knowledge can help to advance the biomass sector. In addition to the logistical challenges of information sharing, Canada is also at a disadvantage due to transport distances rendering much of the woody biomass supply economically inaccessible. Transportation corridors with efficient supply chains need to be established, particularly around existing infrastructure, including existing roads, railways, and shipping. Fundamental questions of environmental sustainability and sustainable harvest levels require careful consideration. In light of potential impacts to soil productivity, water quality, and biodiversity, there should be mechanisms in place (e.g., legislation, guidelines, certification) to assess, guide, and monitor sustainable harvest practices. Such mechanisms can help to address public concern over issues of sustainability, thereby helping to shore up support for the bioenergy sector. While a large portion of the public recognizes the benefits of solar and wind power, only a handful is familiar with bioenergy opportunities; lack of public awareness creates a barrier to realizing the full potential of this ‘green’ resource. The forest sector has high potential to increase its contribution to Canada’s needs.

2. Forest bio-fibre economics and improved utilization

Jason Linkewich, Vice President - Fibre Supply Strategy, Tembec Inc., 10 chemin Gatineau, PO Box 5000, Témiscaming, Québec, JOZ 3RO,

Bio-fibre’s main use is to generate energy to provide heat and generate electricity. The presentation provides an overview of the biomass value chain. The biomass value chain has many methods to generate the end product of energy and the session will provide insights into the economics of extracting bio-fibre and potential uses of material. The presentation will also cover some of the merits of improving fibre utilization and processing of material.

3. Assessing the sustainability of using biomass for electricity production in Ontario

Robert Lyng, Vice President - Sustainable Development, Ontario Power Generation Inc., 700 University Ave, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1X6,

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is examining the prospect of converting some coal-fired units to burn biomass or co-firing biomass with natural gas. Clearly demonstrating that the fuel is renewable and offers sustainable environmental and community benefits is essential for biomass fuel to be accepted by OPG, key stakeholders, and the public. This presentation outlines the manner in which OPG assessed the sustainability of securing wood pellet fuel from Ontario’s Crown forests. The assessment demonstrates that two million ODT of wood pellet fuel could be sustainably procured from Ontario’s forests, providing significant greenhouse gas benefits over natural gas and socio-economic benefits in forest-based communities. The assessment also finds that the wood pellet fuel supply would meet the internationally recognized United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) definition of renewable biomass. Finally, the environmental criteria included in OPG’s fuel specification for wood pellets in order to ensure the sustainability benefits are realized will be reviewed.

4. How can the Canadian forest bioenergy sector better contribute to sustainable development and how can this contribution be better understood in the international forum?

David Paré, Scientific Researcher, Laurentian Forestry Centre, Natural Resources Canada, 1055 du P.E.P.S., PO Box 10380, Sainte-Foy, Quebec, G1V 4C7,

Bioenergy is by far the largest source of renewable energy used globally today and its use is still expected to grow substantially. A recent IPCC report indicates that in 2050 the use of energy produced from biomass would be from two to six times greater than the current use so that it will remain the dominant renewable energy source. The increased use of biomass is not without concerns as the estimate of the human appropriation of terrestrial net primary production (HANPP) is already in the range of 20 to 30% with significant impact on biodiversity and ecosystem sustainability. The Canadian forest bioenergy sector shows a large potential for increasing its supply to both the domestic and the export energy markets. However, the Canadian forest sector has attributes that are not shared by many forested regions of the world. This situation can make difficult the recognition in the international forum of sustainability aspects of this developing industry. Three examples will be given of feedstock sources for which sustainability aspects are not well understood: 1) biomass from salvaged wood from natural disturbances which is largely perceived as a product of poor forest management as the importance and role of natural disturbances is not well understood; 2) the possibility of increasing biomass supply from better managing the natural forest while achieving environmental sustainability; and 3) a greater use of harvest residues from natural forests. The Canadian context is somewhat unique and not well understood in the international forum. The lack of peer-reviewed publications illustrating this context, estimating the resource potential, explaining how sustainability issues are addressed, and indicating environmental performance is in part responsible for the difficulty in recognizing the Canadian context. It is therefore timely to develop methodologies that would fit the Canadian context that aimed at: 1) determining the resource supply potential as well as 2) addressing the impact of forest biomass feedstock production on forest soil, biodiversity, carbon cycling, and the greenhouse gas balance as well as their incidences on social and economical aspects. The development of indicators for sustainable development is also timely and must rely on credible science that applies to the Canadian context. Finally, initiatives that would help the harmonization of certification initiatives both nationally and internationally would have great benefits.

5. Provincial and federal policies – where are we, where are we going?

Christopher Rees, Managing Partner, Suthey Holler Associates & Vice President, Canadian Bioenergy Association,

Although Canada is perceived to have an abundance of forest biomass, many Canadians have an ambivalent attitude to its intensive use for energy. Unlike Europe, Canada has a significant fossil fuel resource base and to date, biomass energy has not been a priority for policy action. The federal government has yet to develop any coherent alternative energy strategy – and particularly relating to biomass. Some of the provinces have introduced important initiatives but a groundswell of support for bioenergy has yet to occur. This session will explore policy initiatives now in place, their prospect for continuation and development, what is working to bring bioenergy projects forward, and what is holding them back. The initiatives surveyed will relate to heat production, electricity production, and transportation fuel production.

6. Ontario forest biofibre – yours to discover

Joe Maure, Coordinator – Forest Bioeconomy Unit, Industry Relations Branch, Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, 70 Foster Dr, Suite 210, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, P6A 6V5,

Ontario’s forest sector is undergoing a significant shift owing to declining markets for traditional products; this shift is further exacerbated by a cyclical industry downturn. These factors are leading to extensive job losses in Ontario’s north as well as rural community upheaval. The Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, and Forestry is collaborating with other government ministries and agencies to implement programs focused on using forest biofibre for products such as fuel for energy, specialty chemicals, and polymers. This talk will provide insights into some of these program areas. The talk will provide information on the potential supply of forest biofibre; some MNDMF policy initiatives (tenure, wood supply competition); and will conclude with the results from a ‘Competitiveness Review’ study. While the emerging bioeconomy presents many exciting opportunities for Ontario, it is not without social, economic, and environmental challenges.

7. The ecological footprint of intensive forest harvesting for bioenergy: the state of research in Canada

Brian Titus, Pacific Forestry Centre, Natural Resources Canada, 506 West Burnside Rd, Victoria, British Columbia, V8Z 1M5,

Research on the environmental sustainability of intensive (i.e., biomass or biofibre) harvesting has been carried out in Canada since the oil crisis of the 1970s when forest bioenergy was first considered as an alternative to fossil fuels. Initial research focused on developing theoretical nutrient budgets for estimating nutrient losses in biomass removals, which led to development of a dynamic predictive model (FORCYTE and its later versions) in the late 1970s; other predictive models were developed more recently, notably at the University of New Brunswick. A number of field trials were then initiated in the 1980s and ‘90s across Canada. This first generation of field trials compared two treatments – whole-tree and stem-only harvesting – and focused largely on soils, nutrient cycling, and site productivity. Second-generation field trials are now being set up to compare a range of slash retention treatments and estimate thresholds for sustainable biomass harvesting over a range of site and stand conditions, and to examine potential mitigation treatments; these new trials now often include studies on biodiversity impacts. In addition to generating new knowledge, current knowledge is being synthesized in comprehensive reviews of impacts on soil, site productivity, and biodiversity; a meta-analysis of soil and site impacts is also underway. Notwithstanding the progress made over the past 30 years of research, there are still knowledge gaps to fill and questions to answer, largely around site-specific impacts. However, enough is now known to support the development of science-based best management practices – within the context of adaptive forest management, which will ensure improvement as the quality and quantity of empirical data increases. Sensitive site conditions can be identified at a general level, used in BMPs, and applied to mappable spatial variables. Spatial applications will allow for field validation of BMPs through rationalized monitoring programs, and allow for linkages to be made to biomass supply models. Emerging work includes application of environmental sustainability to life-cycle assessment, and design of forest biomass supply chains that take into account protection of ecosystems.

8. Can increased biomass removal compromise long-term sustainability? Building on Ontario’s long-term soil productivity (LTSP) experience

Dave Morris, Stand Ecology Program Leader, Centre for Northern Forest Ecosystem Research, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 955 Oliver Rd, Thunder Bay, Ontario, P7B 5E1,

Canada’s, and particularly Ontario’s, forest bioeconomy is developing at a rapid pace and in the coming years, may become as important as the conventional forest economy. As the utilization of forest resources within the bioeconomy field continues to rise, it becomes increasingly important to recognize the knowledge uncertainties that exist regarding the state of bioeconomy science and management in Canada. OMNR-CFS research addressing aspects of biomass harvesting on soil processes and sustainable productivity in northern Ontario has a long history, culminating with the establishment of replicated experiments (18 installations) in jack pine and black spruce ecosystems to investigate effects of three levels of organic matter removal (tree-length (i.e., bole only), operational full-tree and full-tree + forest floor removal) in the early 1990s. Ontario’s installations are also an integral part of a North American-wide LTSP (Long-term Soil Productivity) network, which includes over 100 installations. Results from the Ontario sites, as well as a recently completed meta-analysis with 46 of the LTSP installations, indicate little to no difference between the bole-only and the full-tree harvest with respect to foliar nutrition, individual tree growth, or stand-level productivity across all climatic regions examined. Newly established biomass harvesting trials in both the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and Boreal forest regions in Ontario are using innovative approaches (i.e., suite of robust, multi-trophic indicators of ecosystem function) to investigate interactions between harvest intensity and biodiversity, soil fertility, and productivity. A conceptual model that accounts for the “biological legacy” effect and provides a framework to quantitatively define critical threshold levels of biomass retention will be presented.