One of Canada’s most carbon-polluting electrical utilities is set to burn more waste wood from forests in an attempt to reach its renewable energy targets.
This week, Nova Scotia mandated its privately owned electrical utility, Nova Scotia Power (NSP), put more biomass energy on the grid. The government stresses biomass, which is waste wood burned to produce electricity, is “renewable, readily available and burns cleaner than coal.” However, research increasingly says the opposite: that burning waste wood for electricity produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the dirtiest fossil fuel.
As of 2019, 51 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity generation was coal, 22 per cent was natural gas and three per cent came from biomass and geothermal energy. The utility failed to meet a 2020 goal of achieving 40 per cent renewable energy, blaming the delayed Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador for failing to provide power it was counting on. The target was pushed to 2022. NSP has confirmed it will miss the goal again and said shareholders shouldn’t have to pay the $10-million penalty.
While Alberta is the highest-emitting province by a long shot, Nova Scotia relies the most on coal for electricity.
Its neighbour, New Brunswick, relies significantly on its nuclear sector for energy: 38 per cent of its grid is nuclear power, 22 per cent is hydro and 14 per cent is coal. Alberta relies on 54 per cent natural gas and 36 per cent coal, while Saskatchewan is at 41 per cent coal and 40 per cent natural gas.
As the 2030 federal deadline to shut down coal-fired electricity plants draws closer, all provinces must determine how to replace fossil fuels used in electricity generation. The last coal-fired plant in Alberta is set to close next year when it will be transitioned to natural gas — still a planet-warming fossil fuel, which the International Energy Agency says will have to be scaled back sharply after 2025.
In Nova Scotia, turning to more biomass will still produce emissions.
The province says biomass is “low-quality residual wood and chips leftover from sustainable timber harvesting and primary processing,” and does not include harvesting whole trees for fuel. NSP is required to buy 135,000 megawatt hours — the equivalent of about 16 wind turbines running for a year — of readily available renewable energy in 2023, 2024 and 2025. The province says biomass is “likely to be the only readily available option during that time. It is available due to the closure of the Northern Pulp mill and damage from hurricane Fiona.”
NSP owns one biomass plant, Port Hawkesbury, and its parent company, Emera, owns another in Brooklyn, N.S., that has been offline since February due to wind damage.
N.S. has mandated its privately owned electrical utility, Nova Scotia Power, put more biomass energy on the grid, saying the product is "renewable" and "readily available." However, critics say the opposite: that it's more polluting than coal.
Tynette Deveaux of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign called the announcement “absurd,” adding it shows the “province is playing politics rather than trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Instead, sustainable wind and solar energy should be the plan for decarbonizing the grid, she said.
By 2030, the province aims to produce five gigawatts of offshore wind energy specifically for green hydrogen production, the province announced in September, while confirming most of it will be exported to other countries.
“I'm concerned that the government's recent move here with the announcement about biomass is a kind of distraction or diversion away from holding Nova Scotia Power accountable for renewable energy requirements,” she said.
In NSP’s 10-Year Systems Outlook, the utility details plans to bring natural gas — a fossil fuel — to the power grid. Deveaux said that would cancel out any gains made by the province’s February callout for solar and wind projects to supply 10 per cent of the province’s electricity, part of its ultimate goal to be 80 per cent renewable by 2030.
The biomass news follows mounting tensions between the provincial government and NSP, and further stresses what environmentalists have long warned: Nova Scotia is not on its way to reaching its emissions targets.
Last week, CBC News reported NSP sent a letter to the province calling for a meeting to “work through the differences” and “stop this fighting.” The two have been butting heads over the passed Bill 212, which caps electricity rate increases to customers at 1.8 per cent for everything other than fuel for 2022, 2023 and 2024. It also mandated revenue from the increase "may only be used to improve the reliability of service to ratepayers." NSP has experienced credit downgrades since and said the state of its relationship with the province makes the utility “not confident” it will be able to get off coal by 2030.
Now, both are waiting for a decision from the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board on NSP’s request for a 14 per cent rate increase for electricity over two years.
The province insists a rate hike of that magnitude would be unfair to customers, while NSP is failing to provide reliable service. Hurricane Fiona left around 78 per cent of clients without power — over 20,000 were still without power 10 days after the storm — and the utility is warning of outages from a storm over the upcoming holiday weekend. Deveaux said it shows NSP hasn’t been investing in making the grid reliable. She points to Summerside, P.E.I., which has a municipal utility partly powered by wind and solar; after Fiona, the city had most of its residents back online within two days.
Following the wrap-up of this week’s United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal, which saw the passing of a landmark deal to protect nature, Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre calls the biomass announcement a blow to biodiversity.
“Biomass is not a climate solution, but it’s being embraced by our government in policy and practice because it’s easy to burn trees instead of coal, and it helps the forestry sector with a glut of so-called ‘waste wood,’” he said in a statement.
“Its significant negative impacts on the climate and biodiversity are conveniently ignored. It’s a farce, a sick joke at a time when we need real climate solutions.”