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Biomass atlas provides map for future sustainability

Manitoba could be a global leader in this sector of the bioeconomy

Biomass is a big topic, but it’s an even bigger opportunity for Manitoba, one so big the province as a whole needs to understand it.

From the science to the already-established industry and future opportunities, Manitoba could be a global leader in the world’s bioeconomy.

That is exactly why the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has recently released the Manitoba Bioeconomy Atlas, to help Manitobans of all walks and stripes to understand and benefit from an easy-to-access web-based planning tool that drills down and helps map our province’s ample supply of biomass.

“There are over five million tonnes of available biomass produced in our province every year from agriculture, forestry residue, marginal lands and roadside ditches,” said Geoffrey Gunn, who led the project. “Some of this biomass is already being put to good use as livestock bedding and compost, but much of it is wasted and could be used as fuel.”

Biomass ranges from wood and crops to cattails and grasses, and they are a viable and abundant source of renewable energy in the province. They offer a whole host of environmental and economic benefits. Using biomass for energy in place of fossil fuels immediately reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

“An added benefit of harvesting non-traditional biomass such as cattails is the removal of nutrients such as phosphorus, which contribute to algal blooms,” said Gunn. “For example, if we were to remove 22 per cent of crop residue from agricultural fields and 25 per cent of harvestable cattail biomass, we could remove 2,000 to 5,000 tonnes of phosphorus from our landscape — a huge boon for the health of our lakes.”

Through the work and research of IISD experts such as Dr. Richard Grosshans at locations across the province, the organization has studied the ubiquitous cattail plant for nutrient removal and as an energy source that can be mixed with wood to create pellets that heat buildings and barns.

Where there are cattail plants, there tends to be water nearby. The water, at some time, is moving as part of the watershed and the cattails absorb toxic or problem-causing chemicals flowing by.

By definition, biomass includes the earth’s living matter, plants and animals, and the remains of this living matter. Plants store the sun’s energy, providing a simple, renewable energy source. Better yet, the carbon in plants is captured from the atmosphere which reduces our carbon footprint. Unlike coal, which takes millions of years to form, biomass can be grown and replenished like a crop, once or twice in a season.

According to Gunn, the bioeconomy is the segment of the provincial economy that uses renewable products and services from our natural environment. Advances in biofuels, biochemistry and materials science have shown that we can use waste products from agriculture or forestry to supply new industries. These supplies are spread across the Manitoba landscape.

The Manitoba Bioeconomy Atlas presents logistical and economic analysis of the sources that could supply large processing operations in the biofuel, biochemical or biomaterial industries and attract high-tech investment to Manitoba. Gunn says that he has done presentations to key stakeholders and decision makers with the Bioeconomy Atlas to inform people about Manitoba’s large biomass resources, particularly crop residues, marsh plants (such as cattail), and unused limbs and bark from the provincial logging industry. But he also says the atlas has a vital mainstream role to play and he wants to get it into the hands of producers and is brainstorming the best way to do that. Workshops, seminars and webinars are all in the works.

“The Manitoba Bioeconomy Atlas is an online tool, which means it is fully accessible free of charge for the public right now,” said Gunn. “I think we really need to connect with producers at the grassroots level to ensure they understand how this tool can help them benefit with planning and future decisions that they may be faced with around their biomass resources.”

Gunn admits that things in Manitoba are not quite at the stage where producers and land managers can load trucks with biomass and take them off to market as they do with a commodity crop or livestock. The limitations are twofold: 1) limited infrastructure and the few processing facilities that are unable to meet demand for 50,000 tonnes of biomass annually; and 2) minimal mechanisms to link producers to suppliers, and suppliers to consumers.

“Manitoba has tremendous potential to incorporate bioenergy in its growing renewable energy portfolio, as Canada strives to lower greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a big opportunity to reduce energy costs, particularly for rural businesses,” said Gunn. “We want to help people make the right decision for their own situation. Thanks to Growing Forward 2 funding and support from the provincial biomass community, we’ve developed a really powerful, exciting tool to help biomass work for Manitobans and grow a healthy and sustainable economy.”

To access the atlas, and to learn more, visit iisd.org/bioeconomy-atlas.

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