HALIFAX: Have an opinion on the potential for energy crop farming and renewable energy generation in Cape Breton and northern Nova Scotia? If the answer is yes, then Elizabeth Jessome, a researcher at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, would like to hear it.

Jessome is leading a social engagement project on the subject of climate change, and more specifically, what Nova Scotians can do to limit climate change in terms of energy generation.

Her specific interest relates to farming energy crops, like willow or perennial grasses. These crops could provide fuel for home heating, community energy schemes, or possibly provide biomass where fossil fuel or forest biomass is currently being used.

“The idea that Nova Scotia may be an ideal place to grow dedicated crops to produce energy emerged in relation to the abundance of farmland we have in the province, much of which is fallow and/or not ideal to grow food,” she told The Reporter late last week.

“The question remains, will energy crops become a piece of the renewable energy puzzle for Nova Scotians in the future? There have been economic-based studies, growth trials and how-to guides developed, assessments that show greenhouse gas savings when energy crops are compared to fossil fuels and forest wood, and an analysis of just how much land is suitable is upcoming.

“My interest is in the social engagement piece – if energy crop cultivation did take off in Nova Scotia, it would ultimately be the result of many individual land owners and managers deciding to dedicate fields to the cause. Social engagement now could help ensure that local voices help form future climate change/renewable energy policies and programs, or that developing strategies fit with local goals and values.”

Jessome would love to set up interviews with local folks. The main topic of conversation would be energy crops (in general and as a form renewable energy), current and past uses of land, and the agricultural potential for energy crop farming in the area.

Interviews might also touch on renewable energy, climate change, wood fuel, and Nova Scotia forests.

“I’m hoping to get a sense of what the people who make a living from and care for the land every day think about the idea of energy crops and how they may or may not fit into the local social and physical landscape,” she said. “I am also hoping to highlight concerns and interests regarding the cultivation of energy crops and using agricultural crops to generate energy.”

As Jessome only recently started promoting the project, she isn’t yet in a position to say much about how the interview process is going. She did confirm that media attention has done a good job of spreading word about the project. With that, she has scheduled some interview with locals.

“I know there is a lot of valuable insight out there,” she said. “I won’t comment on responses at this point, you’ll have to stay tuned for project results when interviews are complete.”

She noted energy crops can produce energy in many ways. Each method has controls to ensure greenhouse gas emission reductions and environmental sustainability are associated with their cultivation and use.

“Crops can be burned as pellets or biomass briquettes, or converted to liquid or gaseous fuels — just a few applications,” she said. “Due to the social nature of my project, I don’t focus too much on the specific processes.”

Some of the infrastructure needed to take advantage of energy crops is already used in the province. Wood pellet stoves, traditional fireplaces or wood stoves, and thermal generators all can use energy crop products.

“Due to the nature of my project which focuses on social engagement, I haven’t concentrated too much on this technical aspect,” Jessome said. “What I can say is that agricultural-based biomass isn’t currently widely used in the province, so the development of appropriate infrastructure would necessarily have to accompany any future energy schemes which involve energy crops.”

She said the motivation for this research is that Nova Scotians will need many different options to increase renewable energy generation to address climate change. Regional energy security is another motivating factor, as much of the province’s fuel is currently imported.

“Also inspiring this research are Nova Scotia’s forests,” she said. “Forests in the province have many varied demands placed on them. Growing dedicated energy crops on marginal soils may reduce some pressure on forests.”

To set up an interview with Jessome, she can be contacted at: elizabeth.jessome@dal.ca.