Energy alternatives: How three innovative communities are re-thinking energy

Photo Credit: Greg Horne

Energy alternatives: How three innovative communities are re-thinking energy

👤Greg Horne 🕔Apr 04, 2014

With much recent talk about oil, gas, pipelines and dams in northern BC, it’s possible to completely miss the North’s unique energy potentials. Here are just three energy projects currently underway that are perfectly suited to their northern context and are already turning heads.

“Waste” wood heating

If you knew what the furnace under the Telkwa village office’s new smokestack was heating—a school, five houses, a pub and the village office—you might think it’s not working. There simply isn’t much smoke coming out.

But it’s working just fine. Bioenergy Solutions’ Thomas Wunderlin designed the biomass heating system that burns wood chips from a local sawmill to heat water that is pumped through shallow underground pipes, heating the eight buildings.

Due to its computer-controlled combustion, the high-efficiency boiler burns incredibly clean. According to Wunderlin, “This boiler is equivalent in power to 30 to 50 conventional wood stoves and has about the same emissions as a single one.”

Biomass heating systems are popping up all over the province for many reasons. First, they improve local air quality by reducing waste wood burning in open piles. The Telkwa sawmill was doing this before the bioenergy system powered up in November.

Second, money paid for biomass fuel stays in the community. The mill now gets revenue for what was previously considered waste.

Third, since the boiler is replacing natural gas, the system directly reduces fossil fuel use. Telkwa will save an estimated 130 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Fourth, biomass heating costs less than half of the cost for electricity, propane or even natural gas—it typically pays for itself in less than 10 years and in as few as two.

The fully automated boiler is a little bigger than an Austin Mini and will burn about 200 tonnes of wood chips per year—enough to fill five semi trucks.

The largest challenge to biomass heating is ensuring a long-term, quality fuel supply. Chips have to be uniform in size, relatively dry and free of rocks and other debris. The Telkwa system is working out some teething problems based on these factors.

Wunderlin comes from central Europe, the bioenergy epicenter of the world, where a bustling industry ensures chip quality standards: “In Austria, there are hardly any new systems going in because everything that can be heated with biomass is being heated with biomass.”

Things are different here. To clear the way for BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line, the equivalent of 14,000 logging trucks were simply burned. Chipped and shipped, it could have fuelled 100 systems like Telkwa’s (enough for nearly all the public schools in northwest BC) for over five years.

“It takes a critical mass of operating systems before people say, yes, this is really possible,” Wunderlin says. “Here, there is so much waste wood around that you could easily heat the valley between Vanderhoof and Prince Rupert.”

Heating with bacteria

The geodesic greenhouse beside Smithers Secondary School looks almost extraterrestrial. What’s equally startling is that billions of microorganisms in a nearby compost heap are keeping it warm.

For about $2,000 worth of black plastic pipe, a water pump and a few recycled heat registers, the Biomeiler compost heating system was built last summer during a community workshop organized by Smithers renewable energy guru John Egenolf and led by German expert Heiner Cuhls.

Participants built a large compost pile—about eight feet high and 15 feet across—from roadside brush and manure. They buried a 1,200-foot coiled black pipe, which circulates water that collects heat from the compost’s microorganisms as they break down the organic matter. The pipes travel underground to the greenhouse, where they release heat and then return to the heap.

After a year and a half, the pile will be rendered grade-A compost and the system rebuilt.

The water is kept between 30 and 50 C year round by the decomposition process. In our northern location, it’s equal to 350 solar panels—which would cover a soccer field—or enough to heat six Canadian houses.

Smithers Secondary teacher Rick Hubert, along with the student-led Green Team, manages the system, monitoring temperatures online from home. The group plans to grow food year round in the greenhouse.

“I’ve looked into a lot of alternative energy ideas and this is one of the few things I’ve seen for the North that is feasible. We have lots of farms, lots of free wood chips, and not only does it produce heat in 30 below, but you get rich humus soil out of it. It’s one of the better solutions for up north,” he says


Do you remember the last time you filled your tank for 50 cents per litre? A recycling facility in Whitehorse is getting heating oil at that bargain price, all the while reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up landfills.  

A plastic-to-oil machine was installed at the facility in fall 2012. By heating bits of shredded plastic inside pipes and vessels, the Blest machine produces one litre of fuel for every kilogram of plastic, with nearly zero emissions.

The team behind the project, P & M Recycling, Cold Climate Innovation and the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, has just finished the first year of testing. The system exceeded expectations.

Total cost of the fuel, including all operation costs: 50 cents per litre. The team is confident this can be lowered.

From Whitehorse, all plastics intended for recycling are trucked 2,400 km to Vancouver at great expense. While certain plastics like pop bottles are then shipped to China and readily recycled, many of the lower-grade plastics end up in the landfill.

Local inventor Andy Lera was the seed behind the project. Lera built a working prototype in his backyard using a paint can and a barbecue after watching a YouTube video. Thanks to the success of that first flame up, and to convincing local authorities, Whitehorse now has the first municipal-sized unit in North America.

Emissions from the machine are incredibly low: almost entirely C02 and steam. Lera says it emits “about the same C02 as four humans breathing normally and the same amount of methane from four humans as well.” It’s so clean that it exhausts indoors.

Lera calculates that burning oil created from plastic saves 82 percent on CO2 emissions when compared to shipping waste plastic south, recycling it and shipping the new plastic, plus fuel, north.

The machine is about the size of a pool table and costs about $200,000. It can produce 220 litres a day, enough to heat about 70 northern homes. Market price for the oil is at least $100,000 annually.

He’s even tested it on salt-soaked ocean plastic and it worked wonderfully. This is good news, for Lera and other entrepreneurs, and also for the oceans with their giant gyres of floating plastic garbage. Through the Blest lens, these plastic islands start to look like oilsands.

Since the plant started production, Lera has had phone calls from people all over the continent with piles of plastic and rising fuel costs. Conversations are underway to bring a plastic-to-oil machine to northern BC.