No time like the present for district heating
Landlord and woodlot owner pitches project for public buildings

by Des Kilfoil
    When you see Duncan MacAdams’s wood pellet boiler, it’s hard to believe it could heat anything more than the garage it’s sitting in, let alone five nearby buildings. But that’s what the little unit has been doing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since 2004. No bigger than a refrigerator, the 30-kW boiler pumps hot water through a maze of pipes to MacAdams’s apartment houses in the south end of Halifax, where he has 45 tenants. 
    “From the day we put the boiler in, we’ve saved a very large percentage on fuel, in the order of 50 percent,” he says. “Several years later we got off of heating oil and brought in natural gas. And wood pellets are still cheaper than natural gas.”
    MacAdams believes passionately that all Nova Scotians can save money by using wood energy, and he says a proposed project in the town of Tatamagouche presents a “fantastic opportunity” to start doing that.
    His set-up is rare in Nova Scotia, but such “district heating” systems are common in Europe, and are becoming more popular in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. Several large buildings in Charlottetown’s commercial centre, for example, are connected by water pipes heated by a combination of wood and other fuels. 
    “This is not risky technology,” says MacAdams. “It’s not a challenge, like harnessing tides in the Bay of Fundy to produce electricity. Converting wood fibre to heat buildings has been done for 50 years in Europe.”
    His “district” of apartment buildings is connected by water pipes, and the water is heated by the pellet burner and several other sources: geo-thermal shafts drilled beneath the buildings; a 5-ton heat pump which uses cheaper, off-hours electricity; several solar panels; and on really cold days, four small gas-fired boilers. The computer that controls the system is programmed to use the cheapest fuel first.
    “I want to get off fossil fuels 100 percent,” says MacAdams, “and heat our buildings with technologies that do not add carbon into the atmosphere.”
    Passionate statements like that do not make MacAdams a wild-eyed fanatic. On the contrary, the 75-year-old mechanical engineer is a shrewd businessman, whose resume also includes several years of service in senior levels of government. After graduating in 1966 from the Nova Scotia Technical College (now part of Dalhousie University), he had a successful career with several engineering companies. He also held several senior government posts, rising to the position of deputy minister of P.E.I.’s Tourism and Environment department in the ’70s. 
    MacAdams organized an energy tour of Maine and Sweden for a Nova Scotia Legislature forestry committee, and he developed an energy strategy for the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia (now Forest Nova Scotia). He also intervened with the province’s utilities regulator on long-term non-subsidized renewable energy programs. 
    But it was on a tour of wood energy projects in Germany, with the National Research Council, when he noticed a small pellet boiler manufactured by the Eta company of Austria. MacAdams bought one, and had his employees install it with a plywood hopper and vacuum-flow feeding system, along with the heating pipes for the apartments. He buys about 1,000 18-kilogram bags of pellets a year from Shaw Resources in Enfield, and he says the cost – unlike volatile oil and natural gas prices – has risen only about a dollar a bag since 2004. He has become increasingly convinced that, in a province that’s 75 percent covered in forest, wood energy makes sense.

    It was 1978 when MacAdams moved with his wife and two children to a house in the south end of Halifax. Sensing an opportunity in an area popular with university students, he gradually bought three adjoining houses and converted them to apartments. He also started investing in woodlot properties in Cumberland County. Now he’s a member of the North Nova Forest Owners Cooperative, based in Wentworth, N.S., which manages some 60,000 acres for its 275 woodlot owners. That’s where MacAdams’s business savvy and environmental concern met with the driving force behind the Tatamagouche district heating project: Greg Watson, general manager of the wood co-op.
    “In Scandinavia there are whole towns like that,” says Watson. “Rather than oil and gas, they get heat from wood energy. That’s a long-term vision, but we’ve got to get started and go from there. It’s very preliminary, but we’re trying to get the government interested.” 
    Watson and MacAdams want the Nova Scotia government to consider installing a district heat system in a P-12 school that’s being built in Tatamagouche. Why not install hot water pipes between the new school on the North Colchester High School property and the nearby Lillian Fraser Memorial Hospital, as well as the Willow Lodge Home for Special Care? The fuel for the boilers would be wood chips supplied by North Nova.
    “The government can lead the way, and it won’t cost them any more money,” says MacAdams. “In this case the forest cooperative would put up the capital to burn wood chips, and the government would pay exactly the same price they’re now paying to heat it with fossil fuels.”
Watson also stresses there would be no capital investment costs for the government. The co-op would buy and install the boilers for the school, hospital, and seniors’ complex. All the provincial government would have to do is agree to switch from oil heat to wood chips. 
    “We would not charge extra, just whatever the government is paying for oil or natural gas,” says Watson. “So the government would have a business case to say it’s paying the same amount it would for oil, but it would not have to buy oil from Venezuela or wherever. They’re buying local energy, and we’re improving our forests at the same time.”
    Not only would co-op members have a stable, long-term market for low-value wood that is currently difficult to sell, but Watson believes the benefits would ripple across the province. “Instead of spending our money on oil from outside, we’d be keeping it right here, putting more people to work, creating more tax dollars,” he says. “What a great way to create some new revenue and stimulate our economy. This could be a good way to create some real spark to rural Nova Scotia.”
    Watson’s creativity and MacAdams’s government experience came in handy this April when they presented their proposal to Colchester North MLA and Treasury Board president Karen Casey, and Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines.
    “They were very receptive,” says McAdams. “We couldn’t have asked for a better reception.”  
    MacAdams and Watson are now in discussions with government officials and Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. MacAdams is confident the proposal make sense, based on the simple premise of replacing expensive, imported fossil fuels with a cleaner, locally-produced energy source. 
    “We should all be good stewards of the environment,” he says. “We should all be concerned about putting carbon into the atmosphere. And it doesn’t cost more. In the long run, it makes sense to be environmentally sensitive and responsible. It’s very good business.”

(A New Brunswicker by birth, Des Kilfoil is a freelance writer living in Halifax, having recently retired from CBC-TV. He’s also a part-time instructor at King’s University School of Journalism.)