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University pioneering urban biomass heating

The University of Winnipeg’s new biomass heating system will be a model for other institutions, 
say proponents of alternative energy sources

When school starts this fall, the University of Winnipeg will flip the switch on a novel way to keep downtown buildings heated — with boilers that burn wood pellets.

Last fall the downtown university took delivery of two 100-kilowatt biomass boilers, to provide supplementary heating a steam plant now provides for its Ashdown, Manitoba and Lockhart Halls.

The system, which became commissioned and operational this spring, is also intended as a demonstration project, to give a nudge to others considering switching to a bioenergy source.

“We are going to be the first in Winnipeg to deploy a system such as this,” said Brandyn Berg, with controls, energy management and special projects at the university.

This project is being undertaken in a partnership with Manitoba Hydro’s Bioenergy Optimization Program that helps facilities wean off fossil fuel use, save energy costs and make sound environmental choices.

This will showcase how a biomass system can be used in the heart of a large urban centre, said the university’s executive director of facilities Kyle MacDonald.

“Essentially our goal here is to figure out if we can make this work in a dense urban environment where traditionally biomass wouldn’t be considered,” he said.

The addition of biomass will also help the university reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because biomass has no net GHG impact.

The university’s sustainability strategy includes a goal of five per cent of total campus energy usage coming from renewable sources by 2025 and they’re currently looking at all options including geothermal and solar, MacDonald said.

Adoption of the biomass for supplementary heating will get them halfway to that goal.

Ultimately, they expect a shift to using locally sourced renewable energy will eventually help cut utility bills too.

This is being done in recognition that the cost of hydro is only going up, said MacDonald.

“We use electricity for quite a bit of heat on our campus and that is no longer an economical choice, although it’s renewable,” he said.

“So we’re trying to see what the impact is for environmental purposes, and how it can help us to reduce emissions and potentially save on energy costs in the long term.”

They expect the system to use about 170 tonnes’ worth of pellets a year purchased within 100 km from the university, keeping the transportation footprint low. This link to rural Manitoba and helping to build the biomass market for the farming economy is a very important aspect, added MacDonald.

There has been much interest sparked both from a research perspective and the curious passerby.

It’s not every day you see a hopper bin, which stores the fuel pellets that feed the boiler system, in downtown Winnipeg.

“It kind of turns heads. It’s an eye-catcher and it gets people asking, “what’s that about?” said MacDonald.

You just don’t expect to see such a thing in downtown Winnipeg, he said.

“It’s an eye-catcher and it makes a statement,” he said. “We’re getting lots of interest from the public and other researchers. It gets people asking questions about what its use is.”

University of Winnipeg’s move towards adoption of biomass heating follows the example set by Providence College and Seminary at Otterburne.

When they were doing a large expansion on campus they were keen to explore all forms of alternative energy, said Bruce Duggan, associate professor of business management at the school.

They looked at all the costs and benefits, and ultimately installed both geothermal and biomass heating systems.

The latter was a cue taken from this province’s Hutterite colonies, said Duggan.

“We knew they’d been doing this for years,” he said. “The leaders in this right now are the Hutterite colonies.”

Currently, over 40 Hutterite colonies and about a half-dozen greenhouses utilize biomass to heat their facilities in Manitoba and there are numerous other examples of small “district loop” installations on farms.

Duggan is also president of Boke Consulting, a small company that helps communities pursue environmental projects that also nurture economic development and has been working with northern communities now making dramatic shifts towards alternative energy adoption.

The Northlands Denesuline First Nation, located on the shore of Lac Brochet will be one of the leading alternative-energy communities in Canada in 2020, he said.

There a project known as the Environmental Remediation And Alternative Energy Systems (ERAAES) is underway and making major progress towards weaning communities that have until now been entirely dependent on diesel for their power source.

Northlands is embracing all forms of renewable energy, having installed not only a 1.5-MW biomass district heating system, but 140 kW of lake-based geothermal heating and a 282-kW solar PV park of nearly 1,000 panels and by next year will be replacing about 300,000 litres of diesel or one-third of its power source with renewables. That’s also reducing their GHG emissions by about 18 per cent or 800 tonnes in the process, Duggan notes on his website.

“These are communities that understand local energy very well and are extremely frustrated with their current energy systems,” he said. “It has been just a matter of finding ways and funding for them to be able to do what they know what is the right thing to do.”

Duggan says he sees positive steps being taken throughout Manitoba towards adopting all forms of alternative energy, but we’re only at the beginning.

The farm community and the agribusiness community has been playing an important role in that, Duggan said.

“My overall take on this is that rural farms, businesses and individuals are at the forefront of adopting alternative energy in Manitoba,” he said.

“They think long term, and value self-reliance — both of which fit exactly with adopting renewable energy.”

Currently, Manitoba’s energy imports of gasoline, natural gas, propane and diesel total $4 billion — so there’s plenty of room for all renewables on the provincial landscape, speakers told this past spring’s annual meeting of the Manitoba Alternative Energy Association (MANSEA).

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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