Pictured is Nova Scotia Power's biomass co-generation plant at Port Hawkesbury Paper in Point Tupper.

HALIFAX: Nova Scotia Power (NSP) and the provincial government are pushing back against the Ecology Action Centre’s push for reductions to the biomass plant in Point Tupper.

Because NSP said it is receiving the full Nova Scotia block of hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls, the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) called on the province to rescind a directive to maximize the use of forest biomass for electricity generation in a press release issued on June 23.

The May 2020 directive, issued to NSP by the former McNeil government, was intended to offset delays in receiving renewable electricity from the Muskrat Falls project, the EAC said.

“In January and again in March, NSP reported to the Utility and Review Board that they were now receiving the Nova Scotia block of hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls,” Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator with the EAC, said in the release. “As a result, NSP has been given permission by the UARB to start charging ratepayers for the $1.7-billion cost of the Maritime Link between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. And yet the biomass plant in (Point Tupper) is still running at full capacity… Burning extra biomass is no longer needed for NSP to meet its renewable energy targets and should therefore be discontinued.”

In an email to The Reporter, Department of Natural Resources and Renewables spokesperson Patricia Jreige disputes that claim.

“Muskrat Falls, via the Maritime Link, is still delivering less than what was anticipated,” she wrote. “While it has, at times, delivered the full Nova Scotia block and supplemental energy, it hasn’t done so consistently. These delays and high fossil fuel prices mean that biomass remains a small but important component of our renewable energy mix.”

The EAC said the directive was issued under the assumption that burning forest biomass is a green energy source, an assumption Plourde “strongly rebukes,” noting “there’s nothing green about burning our forests to produce electricity.” He said the practice is driving massive amounts of forest destruction here and around the world, contributing to alarming biodiversity loss.

“It releases more carbon into the atmosphere, per megawatt generated, than coal or oil,” he told The Reporter. “The stored energy available when burning a piece of wood is much less than the stored energy, the BTUs, that can be generated from burning coal or oil. It takes a lot more wood to produce the same megawatt.”

Plourde said biomass burning for electricity needs to be dramatically reduced in Nova Scotia.

“If you look outside in the wood yard outside the biomass plant in (Point Tupper), you’ll see lots of logs,” he stated. “In the long run, yes we would like to see the biomass plant shut down. It’s probably not going to happen for a long time, if ever. That’s one of the problems these days is once they’re built, they will be fed no matter what.

“Since the (Point Tupper) biomass plant opened, we have seen very, very young stands clear-cut and shipped.”

To replace the jobs lost if the biomass plant is shuttered, Plourde said there will be employment in greener sectors, pointing to the Pirate Harbour Wind Farm by Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) which is aiming to use some of its wind generation capacity to develop green hydrogen. NSP’s biomass plant is located at the PHP operation in Point Tupper.

“There will be opportunities right in and around the Strait region with projects are truly green, that are trying to reduce greenhouse gases, genuinely and honestly,” he noted. “When one job disappears from an old or bad industry, other jobs appear in what is called the green economy, broadly speaking. I think it will all work out in the end, and regardless, jobs are not an excuse to keep doing a bad thing.”

In the long term, Plourde said the province needs to recognize that biomass is not a climate solution, it should be removed from Renewable Electricity Regulations, and biomass exports must be banned.

“If you cut a tree and burn a tree for electricity, and another tree grows back, then in 80 to 100 years, the carbon that was released by burning that tree is reabsorbed by this other tree,” he explained. “Based on that, the notion was that you don’t have to count the carbon at all; carbon neutral, or zero carbon emitting. This is an industrial fairy tale, this is a fantasy. It doesn’t make any sense.”

In an email, NSP spokesperson Jacqueline Forster wrote that electricity generated from biomass is defined as “renewable low-impact electricity” by Nova Scotia’s Renewable Energy Regulations.

“Biomass supplies on average approximately three per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity, can back up intermittent wind generation, and is a locally sourced fuel,” she wrote. “We only use wood that has no higher value use, including bark and waste products from sawmills, low quality logs and wood from land being cleared for agriculture.”

Jreige said Nova Scotia is a national leader in fighting climate change and has one of the most ambitious goals in the country.

“Clean energy from Muskrat Falls plays a big part in our plan to generate 80 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050,” she wrote. “The minister’s directive requires that any use of biomass for electricity generation would use only bi-products from current forestry activities, not whole trees or primary forestry products, and must fit in with our plans to fight climate change. We also continue to all explore all options to meet our renewable clean energy goals.”

In addition to negative environmental impacts, Plourde points to the higher cost for ratepayers, as was reported to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board on multiple occasions by analysts for the Consumer Advocate.

With NSP seeking approval for double-digit rate increases, Plourde said this is an area where government can help lower electricity costs and reduce real greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s the most expensive electricity on our grid and the maximized directive has cost ratepayers tens of millions of additional dollars to essentially subsidize the burning of trees here in Nova Scotia, for electricity,” he added. “If the biomass is not reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but increasing it, then that’s kind of a fraudulent calculation.”