Tree power

A plan to turn waste wood into energy in Western Canada is showcasing some innovative technology.

While tiny mountain pine beetles eat their way through trees and forest industry profits in Western Canada, Pristine Power Inc. and Nexterra Energy Corp. have combined forces to propose a $500-million network of power generation facilities that turn waste wood into energy using gasification technology.

Any unsalvageable wood, including what’s left behind by the beetles, will be heated in massive dome-shaped gasifiers and converted into syngas, a clean-burning and combustible synthetic gas. The process reduces sawmills’ dependency on pricey natural gas, easing costs and greenhouse-gas emissions. And with an estimated seven million tonnes of unusable wood added to debris piles each year in B.C., this strategic partnership shouldn’t have any problem finding fuel for the fire.

The plan includes more than 15 projects totalling up to 200 megawatts of power. Calgary-based Pristine is slated to own and develop the plants using equipment provided by Vancouver tech firm Nexterra. Pristine is in formal talks with at least 12 mills; once contracts are settled, the plants can be up and running within 18 months. “Time is of the essence,” says Harvie Campbell, executive VP of Pristine’s team. “The pine beetle trees are mostly already dead.”

Nexterra first introduced the technology last summer at a plywood mill in Kamloops. Soon after, pulp giant Weyerhaeuser agreed to use the process to power lime kilns,boilers and dryers in one of its plants. Nexterra’s partnership with Pristine galvanized a few months ago after the B.C. government released its energy plan aiming for electricity self-sufficiency by 2016.

Campbell says biomass energy projects once needed to be huge to be cost-effective.“The bridge that we’ve been able to cross is that we’ve found a combination of technology and approach that can make smaller fibre baskets [forested areas], which are spread all across Canada, economic.”

For now “it’s B.C.-based technology being applied to a B.C. problem,” says Campbell. But Pristine—likely with Nexterra technology—has its sights set on expansion into Alberta and Ontario, which would make it “a Canadian technology responding to a Canadian issue.”