Energy self-sufficiency for New Brunswick, Part Three: homegrown heat

Published Tuesday, August 18, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

How can NB become completely self-sufficient in energy?  A culture of efficiency – where efficiency, resourcefulness and waste reduction become second nature to us all – would be a huge first step.  A smart power grid with the capability to capture all forms of intermittent renewable energy and deliver stable, reliable power would be a huge second step.  Then what?  

The problem with electric heat

Electric heating is a huge energy burden for New Brunswick, for three key reasons.

First, New Brunswick has a higher percentage of buildings with electric heating than any other province except Quebec.  

Second, most of that heat doesn’t come from efficient systems like heat pumps; it comes from inefficient ‘resistance’ heaters like electric baseboards or electric boilers.  For the same amount of electricity, the best heat pumps today will give three to four times as much heat as baseboards or boilers.  

Third, NB’s heavy reliance on electric heat means that our power grid has a huge ‘winter peak’: much more power is needed in winter than in summer.  So power generating plants built to meet that winter peak end up sitting idle most of the year, and that’s a huge expense for our utility – and us.

Just how big is our winter peak?  According to NB Power, on cold January mornings our provincewide consumption is about 3000 megawatts.  On summer mornings, it’s only about half that.  Most of that difference is heating.

I know I’m oversimplifying, but let’s put that another way: if we could get all our heat from non-electric sources, we might be able to get by with about 1500 megawatts less generating capacity.  That’s about equal to the output of Coleson Cove and Belledune, NB’s two main fossil fuel-fired power plants.  Suddenly the goal of a grid based on renewables looks a lot more attainable.  

So how might we get our heat from non-electric sources?  One of the key solutions is right in our backyard.

Homegrown heat

NB has always had plenty of trees and, if we manage well, we’ll always have plenty.  Wood was the renewable heat source of our forebears; perhaps we should revisit its potential for us today.

Wood offers several possibilities.

For homes, wood stoves are probably the most efficient use of wood since there’s no processing beyond cutting and splitting.  Most of today’s stoves are EPA rated, so they burn very cleanly and efficiently.  Stoking a fire does require some work, but wood stoves are a great heating option – especially in rural areas more prone to power failures.  

Pellet stoves are very convenient, efficient and clean-burning.  They cost more than wood stoves and they do rely on electricity, but they produce comfortable, consistent warmth.  The manufacture of pellets requires energy, so, from the perspective of life cycle analysis, pellets are not quite as efficient as raw wood.  

Both wood and pellet stoves are easy retrofits in most homes; the latter can be installed without a chimney.

For industrial, commercial and institutional buildings, large-scale boilers can use wood chips, pellets, briquettes, sawdust, bark or a combination of the above.  Wood pellet systems have been installed at the Grand Falls Hospital, a nursing home in Edmundston and several NB schools.  Besides producing local jobs and displacing imported energy, each installation is resulting in sizeable dollar savings.  More than a dozen similar projects are in the works.

Wood – and potentially other biofuels – featured significantly in the recommendations of the 2011 NB Energy Commission report.  With commitment and a few well-placed incentives, NB could get much of its winter heating from such homegrown resources.  

(Should wood be used to generate electricity?  The experience of a project in Cape Breton suggests it’s not an efficient way to use our resource.)

What about transportation?  A tough one, to be examined next.