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Slashing through the province’s slash piles


About 25 years ago I attended the grand opening of the NW Energy power plant in Williams Lake.

At that time, burning waste wood to create electricity was a novel idea. The plant was created more to bring an end to beehive burners making it ‘snow in July’ in the city than it was to actually create power. The city was growing tired of flyash so thick you had to run your windshield wipers every morning.

After it ran for a while I remember thinking “there’s got to be an opportunity for someone to chip up all the slash piles in the woods and feed the plant.”

The problem back then, however, was that the plant was getting enough fibre from the mills in town, for free, so there was no business case for cleaning up the slash piles, which continued, and continue, to burn.

Things slowly changed. The pellet industry emerged and there became a market for excess fibre. I was on to other things, so I obviously didn’t get rich harvesting harvested timber and feeding a wood-fired power plant.

So here we are, 25 years later, and the Williams Lake power plant remains, I believe, the only wood-fired plant that feeds directly into the BC Hydro power grid. There have, of course, been other advances. We need only to look at the Downtown Energy System here in Prince George and the UNBC energy system of examples of using wood to create power and heat.

But, we still have huge slash piles that are torched every year in our forests.

Last week Pacific Bioenergy announced that it is partnering with Sumitomo Corporation of Japan, one of that country’s largest importers of pellets. They’ll pretty much take every pellet we can produce, as will the European market.

So what do we do?

We burn wood fibre in slash piles at a horrendous rate.

So I asked Forest Minister Doug Donaldson about it and whether companies like Pacific Bioenergy can access get better access to slashpiles, which are the purview of the major licensees that create them. Here’s what he said.

“It’s been an ongoing issue back to 2005 when (former Forests Minister) Pat Bell was looking at how more of the residuals can be used in the forest. There’s growing health concern in communities I’ve been in around some of the smoke issues. There’s also the common sense approach that this is fibre that could be used for different purposes … Part of my job is to generate more jobs out of every cubic metre that’s harvested. When we burn those cubic metres it’s not creating any jobs.”

If I look back to 2005, it’s probably pretty close to what Bell said, but here we are … still burning slash piles.

I asked Donaldson if non-renewable salvage licences for companies like Pacific Bioenergy are in the offing, something the previous government steadfastly avoided. Donaldson was non-committal but said everything is on the table.

“I think major licensees are looking at ways of making that fibre available as well,” he said.

And therein lies the problem. Timber is a Crown resource but the major licensees dictate what’s done with it. Seems to me government could tell the major licensees to make that fibre available, not hope that they will.

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