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Canada - Lumber waste a hot commodity
West Coast timber companies are nervous that a money-is-no-object bid to transform British Columbia's lumber waste into clean energy could starve existing industries of the wood they need.

The concern stems from a significant shift underway at the province's forest ministry that will see B.C. cater its policies toward extracting not just lumber but electricity from its trees at a time when basement timber prices and the mountain pine beetle have devastated its forest industry.

Those changes, which industry sources said will be unveiled in the next few weeks, will make it easier for bio-energy companies to grab beetle-killed trees -- as well as the treetops and branches that are too small to be sawed into two-by-fours -- and use it to stoke electrical generators. B.C. produces about 7.5-million tonnes a year of that waste wood; some is used by secondary industries but most is left in the forest and burned in huge pyres.


For B.C. politicians, the potential payoff from hauling it out of the bonfire and into bio-power plants is a torrent of new timber-fired electricity.

"You have to look at, in my mind, as a river of wood -- and one very big river, quite frankly -- that can be turned into a product we can use," said Rich Coleman, B.C.'s Minister of Forests and Range. "Believe me, that is a focus of the ministry. I've made it very clear to everybody that we're going after the waste."

But what if that pursuit of new electricity ends in power rates so rich they allow bio-energy producers to outbid other industries already dependent on the waste wood, such as pulp and fibreboard producers? That is a "real risk" if the province pays too much for its bioelectricity, said Wayne Clogg, woodlands vice-president for B.C. lumber giant West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd.

"Suddenly, somebody's [wood] chips in Prince George look pretty good and they get taken away from the pulp mill," he said. "There's an opportunity to use [wood waste] to create employment and new business and so on. But you gotta go at it carefully, so it is really an incremental opportunity for everybody."

In an interview, Mr. Coleman called bio-energy an "add-on" that would not replace existing industry. But he made it clear that B.C. will shell out as much as necessary for the new power.

"If the megawatt price has to go up--either by a special direction to the B.C. Utilities Commission or however we have to do it -- we have to recognize this is an opportunity that's in front of us," Mr. Coleman said. "We need electricity."

The promise of a lucrative new electrical market has caused such a stir among the province's entrepreneurs that they swamped BC Hydro with more than 80 responses after it issued a call for expressions of interest on bio-energy in March.

Among them is Vancouver's Nexterra Energy Corp., a clean-power technology company that recently partnered with Calgary-based energy producer Pristine Power on plans for a $500-million network of wood-fired generators. The plants would be built in small forest communities and produce a total of between 150 and 200 megawatts.

B.C.'s entire waste wood output could produce far more: an estimated 1,500 megawatts, said Fred Scott, a director at Pristine Power. But it remains untapped largely because of the province's forest rules, he said.

Timber companies have little incentive to transport out the waste wood because any timber -- be it a prime sawlog or a worthless branch -- that is taken off the woodlot counts against their annual allowable cut, the total amount of lumber they can harvest in a year. As a result, the worst wood -- the stuff the bioenergy companies want -- gets left behind, and they have neither the trucks nor the cash to bring it in themselves.

"The power costs would be completely prohibitive. It would be cheaper to burn diesel," Mr. Scott said.

The solution, said Mr. Coleman, lies in changing the rules so that foresters are not penalized for hauling out waste wood for power.

"We're not going to necessarily have that waste debris apply to their [annual allowable] cut, so we can move the wood," he said, and threatened punitive legislation if existing forestry companies block the new industry.

"I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing work," he said.

Mr. Clogg and other foresters have lobbied government to temper their approach, asking that the province price bio-power on a sliding scale that tracks the cost of producing it.

For example, Mr. Scott estimates he can generate electricity for $80 to $85 a megawatt using bark and sawdust left over at the sawmill. Electricity produced from the more widely available -- but expensive to move -- roadside debris would cost about $120 a megawatt; cutting down and transporting beetle-killed trees for power would drive the price far higher yet. (Electricity from a major new hydro dam is estimated at $43 to $62 a megawatt.)

If the BC Hydro rates match those costs, the forest industry is prepared to use its lumber trucks to haul the forest fuel for new bio-generators, Mr. Clogg said. "Everybody agrees there's an opportunity out there," he said. "We just need to make sure we set it up so we go after the opportunity and don't hurt the existing industry."

Financial Post

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