Atlantic Forestry May 2018

Switching to wood heat

by David Palmer
    A letter from NB Power arrived recently, notifying us that our household had been selected for the Home Energy Report Program. It compared our power consumption with “average neighbours,” who consumed 2,237 kWh of electricity in the 30-day period starting Feb. 13, and “efficient neighbours,” who used an average of 1,752 kWh. At 790 kWh, we came in at less than half the efficient ones. Although our house was built to high energy efficiency standards more than 25 years ago, our relatively low electrical consumption has more to do with the fact that we heat the house with wood instead of electricity. If NB Power is serious about trying to reduce that big mid-winter demand peak brought about by frigid days, they should know what to do: switch their customers over to wood heat. 
    That’s exactly what Moncton-based ACFOR is doing, one building at a time. ACFOR, owned by Mathieu LeBlanc, started out as a forest harvesting business with a difference. Instead of clearcutting, the company carried out selection and prescription harvests targeted to restoring the Acadian Forest (ACFOR stands for Acadian Forest). They had no trouble attracting woodlot owner clients, and now manage the Turtle Creek watershed on behalf of the municipalities of Moncton, Dieppe, and Riverview. Finding a market for the low-grade material was their biggest challenge. So when the government of P.E.I. decided to convert several government buildings from fossil fuel to bio-energy a few years ago, LeBlanc jumped at the opportunity, and won several contracts. 
    Having been to Austria and seen first-hand what that country is doing, he selected high-efficiency KOB boilers, and used a European-style supply and delivery system. In the 20-year contracts he signs, LeBlanc retains ownership of the boilers, which are fed by high-quality chips from his own forestry operations, delivered by his own augur-equipped chip van (thus avoiding any quality or supply issues). Until now, the buildings that ACFOR heats – all 18 of them – have been on P.E.I., but the company has recently won a contract to heat a municipal building in Riverview, N.B., although the installation was done by another company.

    If you need convincing that wood energy will save money over the long term, examine the case of Dalhousie University’s Agricultural Campus (formerly the NSAC) in Truro, N.S., where a KMW wood-fired boiler was installed back in 1988. According to Kevin Craig, chief engineer at the facility, the school has saved more than $10 million dollars, based on costs for #2 fuel oil during the past 30 years. Now the old boiler is worn out, and they’re getting ready to fire up a new Wellons wood-fired boiler, which will meet their heat requirements and also generate electricity with an Italian built Turboden generator.
    As oil, gas, and electricity costs rise, wood energy will once again become a more attractive proposition, but it’s important that it be done right. When the Austrians started down this path, the first thing they did was set high standards for wood-burning appliances. Despite hundreds of wood-fired heating systems across the country, it’s rare to detect a whiff of smoke. Here in the Maritimes, too many foul-burning wood stoves have given wood heat a bad name. If wood energy is to have a future, combustion systems must be efficient, clean, and appropriately engineered.

    By the fourth week of April, spring had come to Nova Scotia, and some gardeners had already planted peas. In central and northern New Brunswick two feet of snow still lay in the woods, but the St. John River was on the rise. “On the Rise” is the fitting name for the Nature Trust of New Brunswick’s annual fundraiser, held April 21. The guest speaker was Alain Clavette, whose enthusiastic accounts of his most recent bird sightings are broadcast weekly on CBC. While showing slides of the shy and secretive Marsh hen, whose future depends on the protection of wetlands, he echoed the Nature Trust’s plea to expand New Brunswick’s protected areas from its current level of 4.5 percent to the federal target of 20 percent.
    A campaign of another sort unfolded recently in Nova Scotia. The Margaree Environmental Association used high-profile billboards in Halifax to proclaim that forest operations in the province destroy 80,00 bird nests a year. The figure is derived from an article in Avian Conservation and Ecology Journal. Chrystiane Mallaley, a keynote speaker at the CWF gathering, cited this campaign as an example of the public-relations challenges facing forestry today. “It’s a tough one to combat,” she said. “If you point out that the number of destroyed nests could be as low as 18,000 a year, you’ve still lost the argument.” Kind of like denying that you verbally abuse your kids four times a week, while admitting that you yell at them once a week.
    It’s not harvesting that is the problem, it’s harvesting during breeding season. Since breeding season spans May to July – a time when mill inventories are usually low – it would be tough to postpone commercial harvesting. One solution might be to continue harvesting into late winter and early spring, after heavy trucking has been suspended, and cut and pile wood for June delivery after weight restrictions are lifted. Postponing harvest start-up for a couple of weeks, where operationally feasible, would make a huge difference, potentially sparing tens of thousands of nests. 

    The winter and spring of 2017-18 would have been a good year to pilot such a project, as cold weather hung on late and continuous snow cover stretched to 130 days and more. But now flood-watch season is upon us. The normal date for the river to peak in Fredericton is on or around the last day of April. The critical element that determines whether there will be a major flood, besides the snow pack, is the timing of rain and warm-weather events. If several days of higher-than-normal temperatures are followed by heavy rain, watch out.
    While weather sets the stage for a flood, forests also play a key role. Everyone knows that snow in an open field will melt sooner than snow in a forest. Clearcuts are usually snow-free by May 1, whereas snow persists long into May under forest cover. The longer and later that snow is held in the woods, the higher the probability that there will be a major flood. The more snow that melts from recently harvested areas, the less is available to contribute to a spring flood. On a large-scale watershed basis, where, say, 10-20 percent of the forested area has been harvested within the last 10 years or so, the flood risk will be ameliorated to some degree. It is the interplay of cool, shaded, coniferous forests, open hardwood slopes, partial cuts, and clearcuts that ensure that discharge is staged over several weeks, instead of letting go all at once. It is like having a built-in regulator.
    So, what’s our forecast for the spring of 2018? Well, by the time this magazine lands in your rural mailboxes, some communities along the St. John River will have been subjected to significant flooding, likely forcing the evacuation of some residents. Time will tell whether the damage is as bad as it was in 2008.