This article by Derrick Penner originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun on 20 August 2019.

The University of B.C. is going to spend $20.4 million to expand a wood-waste-burning energy plant, with $7.6 million in federal help, to cut natural-gas use and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

UBC built its initial biomass-fuelled research and demonstration facility in 2012, with Vancouver-based bioenergy firm Nexterra Systems and General Electric, as a $27-million bid to trim carbon dioxide emissions by 4,500 tonnes per year.

Now, the $20-million expansion will see installation of a new boiler by the fall of 2020, increasing the plant’s capacity to generate 70 per cent of the hot water needed in UBC’s district energy system, reducing its natural-gas use by half and cutting CO2 emissions by 14,500 tonnes per year.

“The expansion plan is all about thermal energy from a renewable resource and displacing our dependency on natural gas,” said David Woodson, UBC’s managing director of energy and water services.

Woodson said an update in 2016 of UBC’s climate action plan identified an expansion of the plant, which is called the bioenergy research and demonstration facility, as “the only economically viable option” for hitting the university’s target to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. The university’s goal of reducing emissions were to cut 33 per cent of its CO2 production from 2007 levels by 2015 and 67 per cent by 2020.

Because UBC is a public-sector institution, it’s hit with the double whammy of having to pay the carbon tax on its greenhouse-gas emissions as well as buying carbon offsets for the fossil fuels it burns.

“The combined effect, we’re paying over $60 per tonne (for carbon emissions),” Woodson said. “That’s effectively the same price as clean wood waste.”

Waste wood, or biomass, counts as carbon neutral because it isn’t a fossil fuel, although it’s burned, and it comes from a renewable source.

The plant gets its wood waste from a fuel consolidator that draws from more than 100 sources, Woodson said. However, they were surprised to learn that among those the three biggest sources were furniture manufacturing, sawmill waste and the gardening wood waste from municipalities.

Woodson added that UBC’s assessment is that even with the expansion the biomass plant will be able to rely on its existing sources for fuel, even if there is more widespread adoption of bioenergy as a method of reducing fossil-fuel use. The university did an assessment considering what the impact would be if all known biomass projects in the Lower Mainland proceeded.

“That would use up 50 per cent of known available (waste-wood) supplies,” Woodson said. “The short answer is, we’re completely confident in the availability of supply.”

UBC’s district heating system dates back more than 100 years, Woodson said, to the campus’s original coal-fired plant that generated steam that was piped through 14 kilometres of lines to heat-exchangers in all of its buildings. It has since been converted to oil, then natural gas and now biomass, and steam has been switched out to make it a hot-water distribution system.

John Madden, UBC’s director of sustainability and engineering, said the existing plant has cut the university’s CO2 emissions by some 8,500 tonnes per year, already helping it reduce emissions by 38 per cent from its 2007 baseline.