Bioenergy—B.C.’s next trademark?

A new industry association aims to foster a cluster of bioenergy development in northwest B.C.

Switzerland sells watches, Hollywood’s got movies and the Silicon Valley put microchips on the map.

How about northern B.C.?

“We think what we have to give the world is forest-based bioenergy,” says Elissa Meiklem, executive director of the Northern Bioenergy Partnership.

B.C. will likely draw on electricity generated by geothermal, solar and wind technologies in the coming years, Meiklem said.

But bioenergy will lead the way, she said.

“Our place of strength is still in the forest industry,” she said.

Forest-based bioenergy uses a variety of technologies to create heat and electricity from wood products.

Wood pellets are the best-known example.

“We’re  North America’s largest pellet-producing region, bar none,” Meiklem said. Northern B.C. produces 90 per cent all wood pellets made in Canada.

Some 1.5 million tons of wood pellets were exported from B.C. to Europe last year, where they are primarily used to fire power plants that European governments are trying to wean off coal.

Speaking Sept. 22 to members of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, Meiklem laid out what steps northern B.C. could develop a “cluster” of bioenergy suppliers, distributors and customers.

To some extent, she said, it’s already happening.

Like Stanford University in the Silicon Valley, technology clusters often form around a research university.

The University of Northern B.C. in Prince George seems well set to take on that role, she said.

Many universities actually scare off technology start-ups, she said, because they insist on patenting whatever new technologies are developed in their labs.

UNBC is different, she said. At their labs, developers get to keep their patent rights.

“That’s rare in the university world,” she said. “If they come up with a $1-billion idea, they make $1 billion.”

Prince George is already becoming the focus of bioenergy technology in the region, Meiklem said.

The city has plants to install a biomass system that will supply a large portion of its heat.

UBNC already runs a pellet heat system and a gasification plant, and a third biomass plant is in the works.

But not all the north’s bioenergy developers will cluster in one place, Meiklem said. The region is too spread out for that.

Right now, the standout bioenergy pilot is in Fort Ware, a town of 300 people that is an 8 to 10-hour drive north of Prince George.

Fort Ware is one of 60 communities across B.C. that is not connected to the province’s electricity grid or a natural gas pipeline.

Currently, the town is powered by a network of diesel generators.

Partnering with the local Kwadacha First Nation, bioenergy providers have plans to switch the town to a biomass plant by late 2013. If the project goes well, Meiklem said it could be replicated in other isolated communities across the province.

Ultimately, the Northern Bioenergy Partnership hopes to foster the industry to the point where B.C. is exporting the technology around the world.

“That’s the dream,” Meiklem said.

But getting to that point will mean jumping a few hurdles first.

Earlier this September, venture capitalists in California lost a record $1 billion on a solar technology start-up called Solyndra. It was the third U.S. solar company to file for bankruptcy in a month.

Analysts worry that the unexpected crash of Solyndra could have a chilling effect on venture capital—exactly the sort of investment needed to develop new bioenergy plants.

Northern B.C. will also have to do more to entice young engineers to move into the region.

“The make it or break it is bringing in skilled workers,” said Meiklem.

The Northern Bioenergy Partnership just got off the ground, and plans to hold its first AGM in January.

But Meiklem hopes that in the future, the partnership will be able to kickstart development and speed up what’s already happening.

B.C. industries are generally pretty conservative, she said.

“We’ve got some big risk-takers—that’s how our region formed, how it got built,” she said. “But we have to encourage that.”

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