Nova Scotia Biomass FAQ

We are reproducing these informative papers here for our Members and visitors.

Nova Scotia Biomass FAQ

How big is the biomass industry in Nova Scotia?

It’s big and getting bigger with both large-scale domestic consumption and large-scale biomass exports. Specifically:

The largest biomass-burning facility in Nova Scotia is the 60 megawatt generator in Port Hawkesbury, owned by Nova Scotia Power and located next to (and attached to) the Port Hawkesbury paper mill. It consumes up to 650,000 green tonnes of woodchips a year or roughly 100 tonnes per hour. As many as 50 tractor trailer trucks a day deliver up to 2000 tonnes of biomass every day. As noted on the Nova Scotia Power website their wood biomass fuel is “chipped and delivered to the plant directly from the forest” – so not so-called “waste wood”.

The second largest is the 30 megawatt Brooklyn Energy plant in Liverpool owned by Nova Scotia Power’s parent company Emera which sells the electricity generated to Nova Scotia Power. At half the size of the Port Hawkesbury plant it uses about half as much wood – roughly 325,000 green tonnes per year.

The third big biomass generator is owned by Northern Pulp in Pictou and is used exclusively to provide electricity to their pulp mill in order to avoid having to buy more expensive electricity from Nova Scotia Power. They harvest and chip the trees themselves – primarily from clearcutting on Crown lands. It is not known exactly how big it is or how much wood it consumes but a reasonable guestimate it is at least as big at the Brooklyn Energy Plant at 30 megawatts and 325,000 green tonnes per year (maybe more).

In addition to these large biomass facilities there are several smaller ones such as the 3.7 megawatt biomass plant at the old Hefler sawmill in Lower Sackville.

How much forest biomass is being harvested in Nova Scotia?

No one knows for sure because there is no reporting on this. But it is well over one million tonnes per year and perhaps as high as 1.5 million tonnes for domestic use alone. Biomass exports in the form of raw wood chips are estimated to be about 400,000 tonnes per year. So a reasonable estimate of total biomass produced in Nova Scotia is around 2 million tonnes a year.

How is it being harvested?

Almost all of it comes from purpose-specific clearcutting – including young, mixed-wood stands and in some cases even rare old growth forest stands

Isn’t it just “waste wood”?

The public has been told repeatedly that large pulp mills and Nova Scotia Power will simply be burning “waste wood” to produce this wonderful new “green energy”. Sounds logical, right? How could burning wood that is just going to waste be anything but good? The problem is: there is no “waste” wood that is not already being used. In the last twenty years the traditional forestry industries have adapted to tight times by investing in every possible efficiency – including finding marketable uses for the formerly discarded bark, chips and sawdust produced in the conventional milling processes. Pulp and sawmill operations have also become tightly integrated, buying, selling and using every scrap of wood refuse they produce. So there is, in fact, no wood being wasted at all. Biomass for electricity is almost completely coming from purpose-specific harvesting of large volumes of trees. Harvesting well over a million new of tons of trees a year is the equivalent of adding another pulp mill to the province and clearcutting a 1 km-wide strip from Yarmouth to Sydney once every 4 years. 

Is forest biomass is being exported out of Nova Scotia?

Yes. A company  called Great Northern Timber sells bulk container shiploads of  raw chipped trees to foreign customers out of Ship Harbour. They cut on private and Crown land and are part of the Westfor Consortium with a sizable timber allotment from Crown (public) lands. See:

Isn’t there supposed to be a cap on biomass harvesting in Nova Scotia?

Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy, in 2010, set a cap of 350,000 dry tonnes in 2011 (roughly equivalent to 700,000 green tonnes) of additional (new) forest harvest of standing trees per year for biomass electricity that would qualify as renewable under the Renewable Electricity Regulations. The cap has never been enforced.

Are there any plans for expanding the biomass industry in Nova Scotia?

Yes, the Nova Scotia Government has been enthusiastically supporting the creation of a “bioenergy” Industry including “bio-fuels” and have given a company called Cellufuel approximately $5 million dollars in grants and loans to develop the technology in the old Bowater Mill site which they/we bought and re-named “ReNova Scotia Bioenergy Inc”. The senior executives all come from the pulp and paper industry. If they are successful they plan to build a $50 million commercial bio-refinery using large volumes of trees as feedstock.

In addition, Great Northern Timber, the company that is chipping and shipping large quantities of Nova Scotia forest biomass to foreign biomass plants recently bought the old MacTara pellet mill in Middle Musquodoboit in a bankruptcy sale and are now also producing wood pellets for the European biomass market. See:

Is biomass a “value added” product?

No. Forest biomass is the least valuable “wood product” ever produced in Nova Scotia.  Cutting and chipping trees adds no value and in fact, often uses trees that could be used for higher value products. It is also the most expensive form of electricity on our power bills. Nova Scotians are subsidizing forest biomass burning through higher electricity bills. $208 million for the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant will be passed directly on to Nova Scotia Power customers.  And the rate paid for producers of biomass energy under the feed-in tariff program is 12% higher than wind energy – again, an additional expense added directly to customers’ electricity bills. 

What’s the impact on our forests?

Our forests have already been severally degraded in terms of the abundance, diversity and health of both trees and wildlife.  We have less than 1% old growth forest left in Nova Scotia, an ever-growing list of endangered species and ever-shrinking fragments of habitat for wild species to survive in.  How much more can the wildlife species that are trying to survive in what’s left of them take? Domestic biomass has added the equivalent of a big new pulp mill in terms of new consumptive pressure on our forests and has driven clearcutting practices to new lows.

What can be done about this?

The whole thing is being driven by bad policy that considers biomass “renewable” and “carbon neutral”. The provincial government needs to 1) remove forest biomass from the list of approved generation sources in the Renewable Electricity Regulations and 2) Count the carbon emissions released by biomass and 3) ban exports of forest biomass from Nova Scotia. Our relatively small landmass and already highly-stressed forests cannot and should not be used to feed the growing international biomass demand.

Talk to your local MLA and ask for these three things. Send a letter to the Premier and the opposition leaders and ask for these three things. A list of Nova Scotia’s elected officials can be found here:

And be sure to copy your letters to Nova Scotia’s Director of Climate Change:

Jason Hollett Executive Director of Climate Change,  NS Department of Environment, 1894 Barrington Street Halifax, NS.  ><

How did this happen? (Background)

Nova Scotia’s NDP government commissioned Dr. David Wheeler, past Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University, to provide a strategy to reach the province’s goal of 25% renewable energy by 2015. 

In 2009, Michelle Adams and David Wheeler (yes, the same David Wheeler who led the recent fracking review) steered the stakeholder consultation process for a Renewable Energy Strategy for Nova Scotia to provide options to help meet the province’s renewable energy targets.

Wheeler and Adams ultimately gave a highly conditional green light to forest biomass use, but noted that “more discussion regarding forestry management standards and the assurance of ecological integrity of Nova Scotia’s forests is clearly required.”

They were presented with a slew of evidence pointing to failures in the regulatory regimen and potential negative impacts from biomass harvesting.

They were clear that the case for forest biomass for energy production was “contingent on the ability of stakeholders to come together in a consensual way to identify and define sustainable harvesting practices” and called on DNR to convene such a conversation before moving ahead with any biomass projects.

That never happened.

Wheeler and Adams also directed DNR “to develop regulations outlining the highest possible standards expected for sustainable forestry practices as it applies to biomass harvesting for the purpose of energy generation — as quickly as possible” in order to “provide guarantees on ecological integrity.”

No such standards were ever created.

The report similarly noted “proponents of forest biomass-based electricity generation will need to implement procurement policies that adhere to the highest possible certification standards (e.g. FSC or a commensurate system), subjecting the actors in their supply chain to appropriate auditing and assurance systems in order to ensure the proponents’ compliance.” They further recommended “a premium of around five per cent of the payments identified for enhanced forest stewardship to meet relevant standards and audit systems.”

To this day, no such system is in place.

The Nova Scotia government approved it anyway.

Similarly, the steering panel for the Natural Resources Strategy, consisting of retired chief justice Constance Glube, Joe Marshall, executive director of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and Allan Shaw, chairman of The Shaw Group, warned in 2010 that “there is ample evidence that our forests are already under considerable stress” and that “Nova Scotia does not have the wood capacity for biomass use to make much of a difference.”

The panel strongly urged the government to “exercise great caution in the use of biomass for power generation.”

They also said:

“Unless there is change, Nova Scotia’s natural resources will continue to be destroyed.”


Useful links:

A short local film about the impacts of the NSP biomass plant at Port Hawkesbury:


Biomass madness

Re: “MIT expert: Carbon-neutral biomass ‘accounting fraud’” (Nov. 5 story). Thank you for exposing the Nova Scotia biomass shell game. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: It’s one thing to use local firewood to boil a kettle to make tea. Your trucking is minimal, and in our damp climate, your patch cut will soon restock, cancelling your carbon debt within the trees’ lifetimes.

It’s quite another thing to clear cut hundreds of hectares of Crown land a year (some of it prime old growth), truck it long distances (burning fossil fuel at about four kilometres per litre) to biomass mills to boil water to make steam to run turbines to generate electricity to transmit kilowatts (losing more than 20 per cent along the way) to distant points to boil water to make tea (plus run TVs, recharge phones, etc.).

Never mind shipping our tree chips overseas to right the carbon wrongs of Europe and the U.K.!

I’m oversimplifying — but how ungreen can we get? Burning biomass is like the U.S. subsidizing Big Ag (wink, wink) to grow corn to make ethanol to replace gasoline — while producing more CO2 than they saved! I know — it’s all about jobs and votes. But meanwhile, our grandkids’ planet is being cooked! Are we nuts? Or just slow?

Gary L. Saunders, retired DNR extension forester, Clifton

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