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Leaders eye possibility of wood pellet heating system for community of Wekweètı̀, N.W.T.

A look Inside the Stanton Legacy wood pellet boiler in Yellowknife. Wood pellet boilers were discussed during biomass week.  (Arctic Energy Alliance - image credit)
A look Inside the Stanton Legacy wood pellet boiler in Yellowknife. Wood pellet boilers were discussed during biomass week. (Arctic Energy Alliance - image credit)

The senior administrative officer of Wekweètì, N.W.T., says his community is mulling over the possibility of switching to wood biomass as a way to heat homes.

The idea, said Fred Behrens, is to install a biomass district heating system that would help provide heat to all the homes in the community.

It would involve a wood boiler, and a series of pipes that would connect each of Wekweètì's 28 households, as well as 10 larger buildings to provide heat.

"Then, instead of having to use their furnace or their woodstove, they would be connected to our boiler and get the heat from our system," Behrens said. "Depending on the cost of operating the whole system, we can decide if we want to sell the heat to our residents or just recoup our costs from all the major buildings and let the residents have free heat."

Behrens said this project would offer a number of benefits for the community. One of the big ones would be employment, where individuals would be involved in maintaining the biomass system as well as securing the wood needed for the system to work.

"I think it's a great idea. You know, our community is small. Hopefully we can accomplish this dream of ours," he said.

It could also reduce the community's reliance on diesel, he said, leaving a smaller carbon footprint. He estimates it would take between 300 and 400 cords of wood per year.

"With technology now, the boilers aren't really massive or anything. They're pretty small and very efficient," he said.

The community still needs to secure funding for the project, but Behrens said some preliminary conversations have taken place with the federal and territorial governments.

The community has already gone through several feasibility studies for combining solar, battery and heat, as well as for a net-zero community centre, he said. The biomass system could connect to those.

The price tag Behrens is expecting for all this is around $20 million.

"We do have some fairly positive indicators that we can get dollars from the territorial government as well as federal government, but of course we're just in the starting process of putting in the applications and figuring out exactly where we can find all the money," he said.

Why biomass?

Many in the North already heat their homes with woodstoves. Biomass heating generally refers to using wood chips or pellets.

Behren's comments came during Biomass Week, a series of events led by the Arctic Energy Alliance. Over the course of the week, the organization brought in experts to talk about wood-burning technologies for homes and businesses.

Michelle Léger, the lead organizer of the event, said she thinks it's important to advocate for the use of wood biomass because it's a cleaner form of energy than fossil fuels as it produces less CO2.

It's also renewable, she said — if it's managed well.

"Trees will keep growing, and as long as biomass heating like pellets and cord wood is harvested in a sustainable way, it will always be there for us," she said.

Léger said the primary source of biomass energy in the Northwest Territories comes from wood.

It's already being used in some southern areas of the country, said Gordon Murray, the executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. He said in Atlantic Canada, it is already being used to heat ice rinks, community buildings, and entire hospitals and universities.

He said wood pellets have also been successful in rural communities, where people are seeking low-cost, low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.

"You know it's a beautiful source of heat," he said.

"People enjoyed sitting in front campfires for thousands of years. People know what wood heat is all about and this is just a very highly efficient form of wood heat."