Sketchy Claims Inflate B.C.'s Wood Energy Exports

Industry advocates say B.C. could become the "Saudi Arabia of Biomass" -- but that probably won’t be good for the global climate.
Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/Wikimedia.

Eight words in a 927-page document. That’s all it took to launch a European policy with big implications for B.C. That policy counts burning wood to produce energy as equivalent, climate-wise, to solar and wind power. This despite the fact that burning wood releases the very same greenhouse gasses as any fossil fuel; the same gasses that are turning oceans acidic and melting the polar ice caps. Here are the eight words: “The emission factor for biomass shall be zero.”

Not, you will note, “are zero.” No: “shall be zero.” Behind that starkly declarative pronouncement lay months of tense international negotiations over the climate-change implications of burning biomass, or any kind of plant matter: wood, agricultural wastes, or crops grown for burning. In the end, the winning argument was that biomass regrows, recapturing the carbon released when it was burned, and therefore must be OK for the climate.

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Robert McClure's picture

Brent Sauder: ‘It's not research, it's a mission'

University of British Columbia's Brent Sauder
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest

As director of strategic partnerships for the University of British Columbia, Brent Sauder had a major role in shaping plans for the new $34 million biomass power plant on campus, known as the Bioenergy Research and Development Facility. The industrial facility sits just across the street from bluffs overlooking Georgia Strait — some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, in other words.

In an on-campus interview last year with InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure for our “Smoke and Numbers” series with The Tyee, Sauder explained UBC’s motivations and rationale for bringing the facility to campus in a partnership with General Electric and Vancouver-based Nexterra. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

 

Brent Sauder:                  One of the problems with BC is that we have very cheap power. The development of these kinds of technologies would tend to take place in places where there’s higher power prices. But obviously we want to have good companies grow in British Columbia so this was an opportunity for us to actually get them to develop their product here.

When they first came to us saying would we be interested in being a demonstration site, in typical Canadian fashion the only thing we have is land so that’s what we actually put toward the project. We have a site.

UBC is about 50,000 students. It’s one of the largest land grant universities in North America and we have our own governance system. We're not the city of Vancouver. So part of the whole thing of this project was to get the social license to actually build a facility like this.

Robert McClure: Because it's an industrial facility in the middle of campus?

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Biomass Fuel: Worse for Climate than Coal?

A worker unloads a truckload of biomass at the Univeristy of British Columbia energy plant.
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest

The crackling log fire, flickering in an open hearth, may win the day for romance or Christmas cards. From the modern viewpoint of efficiency and good health, it’s more of a horror show. Our ancestors, living in unvented huts lit and warmed by open fires, wheezed and coughed their way to early deaths. Burning wood still releases an old-timey scented bouquet of toxins: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, and a couple dozen other chemicals classified as hazardous air pollutants, along with ultrafine particles of super-toxic soot that go deep into the lungs. As a 2007 Health Canada review put it, “Even though wood smoke is natural, it is not benign.”

For that reason, a well-run modern biomass-burning power plant is much less smoky than a fireplace. High-tech smoke scrubbers with multisyllabic names like "electrostatic precipitator" and "regenerative thermal oxidizers" scrub their exhaust, and operators work continually to bring down pollution levels, tweaking temperatures and fuels. The state-of-the-art may be UBC’s $34-million Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility reported on in the first installment in this series: what comes out of its smokestack is even cleaner than emissions from most natural-gas plants.

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Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

UBC’s new $34-million Biomass Research and Development Facility is cutting edge in the age-old practice of converting wood to heat and power.
But the features that make the plant clean-burning also make it hard to replicate. And like UBC's old natural-gas-fired plant, it produces greenhouse gases. 
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest
 

Nestled into a seaside forest on the University of British Columbia's lands, amid a carpet of sword ferns and salal, sits a gleaming industrial facility that’s been hailed as a significant step toward a carbon-neutral future for B.C., Canada and even the world.

The wood-gas fired plant just off Marine Drive in Vancouver, the university boasts,  “will reduce UBC’s natural gas consumption by 12 per cent and campus greenhouse gas emissions by nine per cent (5,000 tonnes), the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road.”

“It’s very exciting,” said Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic partnerships, who helped shape plans for the plant. “It’s not a research activity -- it’s a mission.”

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15 Key Dates in the History of Biomass Energy

Canada actively participated in the international negotiations that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that was supposed to start turning the tide on climate change. That pact committed Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. In the nearly two decades since, climate politics in Canada and British Columbia in particular have repeatedly whiplashed.

Here are 15 key events:

Inslee weighs tenfold increase in cancer risk for fish eaters

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at the State of the State address in January. Flickr/Jay Inslee.

How much risk of cancer from eating fish is too much? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has privately advanced a proposal that would likely pass legal muster but that worries Indian tribes and environmentalists. It would allow a tenfold increase in allowable cancer risk under the law.

It’s either that, the governor has told a panel of his advisers, or the state will have to consider regulatory breaks for polluters that the state has not traditionally granted in the past. For example: Giving factories, municipal sewage treatment plants and others who dump pollution into waterways 20 years or perhaps even more to come into compliance with new toxic-waste limits.

Caught in crossfire between Indian tribes and business interests, Inslee stepped into the controversy last spring after his predecessor, Christine Gregoire, short-circuited plans by the state Ecology Department to make water pollution rules more protective of people who eat a lot of fish. Gregoire’s move came a day after the former governor met with a senior Boeing Co. executive who strongly objected to tighter restrictions on toxic pollution, as InvestigateWest was the first to report.

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Announcing an INNovation Fund-backed Project

in

Today we're pleased to announce a new project that we're quite excited about.

We will be designing a new showcase for investigative journalism on the radio with Seattle NPR-affiliate KUOW. The project will kick off next month, with the first series expected later this year.

Seed money is being provided by an INNovation Fund grant. The INNovation Fund is a new initiative of the Investigative News Network and the Knight Foundation to support innovative projects in nonprofit news and public media. The first round of eight grants were announced this morning.

Thanks are also due to KUOW news director Cathy Duchamp and IW co-founder-turned-KUOW editor Carol Smith, both of whom have been brilliant and enthusiastic collaborators. We're thrilled at the opportunity to expand our partnership.

Investigative News Network: INNovation Fund Winners Announced

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Despite Increasing Death Toll, Push Is On To Open More Public Roads to ATVs

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For a disabled kid found abandoned on a street corner in China at age 4, Guo Biao was doing pretty well by last fall. After a decade hidden away in a Chinese orphanage, he had landed at the apple and cherry farm run by Dwayne and Sherri Bowman near Zillah, a farming community in central Washington.

Finally. A family. And also a new name: Zeke Bowman. With only a second-grade education, the teen from China was welcomed by the devout Christian family. The Bowmans helped Zeke learn English. For the first time he got a hearing aid for his deformed ear.

“He was so thrilled to be here,” Sherri Bowman said.

And then last October, Zeke climbed aboard one of the Bowmans’ four all-terrain vehicles, just as he’d done many times before at the end of a day in the orchards. He headed down a two-lane country road called Lucy Lane. For reasons the Bowmans still ponder, he rear-ended a tractor and died that evening in the hospital.

ATV tragedies like this – on roads, rather than backcountry trails where ATVs are designed to go – are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 others every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.

The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the U.S. carry a warning label stating that the vehicles are not to be driven on the road. Their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.