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Ulf T. Runesson

Faculty of Natural
Resources Management,
Lakehead University

955 Oliver Road,
Thunder Bay, Ontario,
Canada P7B 5E1

     (807) 343-8784

     (807) 346-7769


Biomass: Alternative Heating Options for Remote Aboriginal Communities

Ken VanEvery and Rachel Bryan

Since time immemorial, Aboriginal communities have relied on the natural environment to meet their life sustaining and spiritual needs. Biomass burning has been part of the Aboriginal way of life and is a familiar concept for Aboriginal communities. Biomass district heating could be summarized as the combination of a traditional source of energy with new technology.

Current availability and cost of fossil fuels for heating has driven many communities in search of alternative energy sources. Biomass burning combines traditional methods with new technology to create a more environmentally friendly and inexpensive energy source. For communities with a readily available biomass supply (timber), biomass heating can be a cost effective and viable alternative to shipping/flying in fuel oil.

A biomass district heating system consists of boilers, which are fuelled with biomass to heat water. The hot water is then distributed through supply pipes to the customers and is returned after the heat energy has been extracted. Heat exchangers in the customer's building transfer the energy from the district heating system to the building system to provide space heat and domestic hot water.

As well as providing a renewable source of energy, biomass district heating generates new employment opportunities, cost savings, greater self-sufficiency, and reduced risk of household fires within the community. Biomass fuelling allows for better utilization of the forest resources; tops and lower quality wood can be used as well as species that may not be desirable for construction. For many communities the primary source of biomass is wood fibre waste (saw dust, chips) from a local mill. However, if no industrial forest users are located near the community, biomass can be harvested from the surrounding forest. In this case, more planning is needed in order to regenerate and maintain the forest. A good timber management strategy will ensure forest sustainability while allowing for the extraction of wood fibre for community use.

Biomass heating offers both short and long term economical benefits for the community. Money that is currently leaving the community for heating oil can now remain within the community. Processing the biomass within the community means less dependence on fuel suppliers, savings on transportation costs and no environmental damage due to spills. Numerous employment opportunities can also be develop from implementing biomass district heating in a community such as logging, swilling, chipping and the operation of the heating plant.

Aboriginal Communities

The biomass district heating system is very popular in Europe, but is now just becoming known within North America. The Ouje-Bougoumou Crees and Grassy Narrows First Nations are two of the first Canadian communities to successfully implement their own biomass heating systems.

The Ouje-Bougoumou Crees were the first Canadian community to develop and implement a biomass district heating system. Talks began in 1986 and the concept and design of a biomass district heating system developed. The community's primary fuel source is wood waste from a sawmill located approximately 26 km from the village. The wood waste used in the heating system would otherwise have been stockpiled at the sawmill.

A fully automated boiler system controls everything from fuel in-feed to ash handling at the plant. A circuit of pipes brings the hot water to the network of buildings where it is used to heat water for household use and provide space heating. The community found that by using a biomass district heating system they could lay the basis for substantial long-term socio-economic benefits as well as provide energy using alternative methods while staying true to their traditional beliefs and practices. The Grassy Narrows First Nations also recently developed a biomass district heating system which provides heat energy for institutions, businesses and residential dwellings. The system is powered by a central heating plant, which is fuelled by wood chips acquired from three different sources. The primary source of biomass is wood waste from a local sawmill. However, the community wishes to generate its own biomass through the chipping of undesirable tree species, non-utilized treetops and dry wood from commercial harvesting operations within reasonable hauling distance from the community. This shift will create employment opportunities, keep funds within the community and will mean better utilization of the forest.

In the case of both the Ouje-Bougoumou and Grassy Narrows First Nations, biomass district heating has become an important part of their communities. As backup, both communities can also run their central boiler systems on oil if there is a problem with the biomass supply. Forest management is recognized by both communities as being an important factor to consider. The Ouje-Bougoumou and Grassy Narrows First Nations have implemented forest management strategies to ensure a sustainable forest and renewable fuel supply into the future.

About the authors:

Ken VanEvery is a graduate of the Faculty of Forestry and the Forest Environment at Lakehead University. He is currently employed as a forester with KBM Forestry in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He is a member of Six Nations First Nation.

Rachel Bryan is a senior high school student who was selected to participate in the Shad Valley Program. Shad Valley places high achieving high school students with an employer for a month of career placement and a second month of study at a Canadian university.

Reprints courtesy of Megwekob First Nations - Lake Superior First Nations Trust

National Aboriginal Forestry Association

First Nation Forestry Program

Northern Ontario Native Tourism Association

Assembly of First Nations

Cree-Tech Inc.
Last Modified: January 20, 2014 20:01:06. 
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