Over the last two weeks, both UNBC and Prince George have again been front-and-centre regarding energy, and bioenergy in particular. Today was the last day, for example, of the International Bioenergy Conference and Exhibition, which is held every second year in Prince George. This was the 10th anniversary of the conference and there were close to 350 people attending from all over the world: Sweden, Finland, China, New Zealand, the United States, etc. It’s the longest-running conference of its kind in Canada.
For the last few years, I’ve been a member of the Board for the society that puts on the conference. Its relationship with UNBC goes back to the beginning – in 2004, the University was the site of the first conference. This year, UNBC hosted the opening reception for the conference and provided a number of tours of our bioenergy systems. It’s great exposure to some of the leading bioenergy thinkers and companies from around the world.
One of those leading thinkers is a local person who first had the idea for the bioenergy conference. John Swaan is considered to be a father of Canada’s wood pellet industry. He had his motivation in the beehive burners that were incinerating thousands of tonnes of sawmill residues in Prince George and the region in the 1990s. While some saw a waste product, John saw a business opportunity. He started a pellet-manufacturing operation in the region and was the first to ship pellets from Canada’s west coast to Europe. He was a founder of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and served as its executive director through much of the 2000s. For all of those reasons, John was the first recipient of a new “Founders Award for Bioenergy Excellence” that was presented by the Board to celebrate the conference’s 10th anniversary.
What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that John was also an instigator of UNBC’s bioenergy project…all because of the 2010 Olympics. Seriously. In 2007, the City of Vancouver was planning the construction of the athletes’ village and had proposed that it be heated with wood pellets from northern BC. The idea didn’t garner public support, however, and so the idea wasn’t approved by Vancouver city council. John was visiting UNBC shortly after the decision and was expressing his frustration over the perception of bioenergy in metro Vancouver. The reaction from UNBC was essentially this: “If Vancouver won’t do it, we will.” John was executive director of WPAC at the time and worked with us to acquire federal funding for a small wood pellet system at the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Lab that would serve as a “prototype” for a future energy system that would tie into UNBC’s existing campus district heating system. Funding was provided by the Federal Government in 2008 as part of its pine beetle recovery program and the rest is history.
Today, the two bioenergy systems on campus – the wood pellet system and the larger biomass gasification system – have offset natural gas consumption for heating by more than 70% annually. But maybe even more significantly, the project is serving as a model for northern communities and a platform for education and research.
It also continues to attract awards. The latest was awarded in Toronto last week at the Canadian Green Building Council annual convention. The Bioenergy Plant was one of only eight buildings nationwide to receive a green building award, and the comments of the jury are particularly appropriate:
This project is exemplary for bringing local energy production into view and so elevating public consciousness around ownership and responsibility. An elegant building whose expression is rooted in ’place’; a fabulous example of what more communities in Canada should be doing.
Hear, hear. It’s a story and an opportunity that UNBC is continuing develop and the bioenergy conference provided another opportunity to share it with the world.