A local fuel initiative is possible for Revelstoke

Community op-ed contributor Cornelius Suchy believes a "Made in Revelstoke" solution to fuel is possible. The key? Converting wood waste into fuel.

File photo: Dr. Geoff Battersby, centre, leads a tour through the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation facility in 2014. The facility converts wood waste into heat, which is circulated through underground pipes to heat buildings in the community. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

The Revelstoke Mountaineer welcomes submissions and op-ed pieces from community members on various topics. The following piece was contributed by Revelstoke wood waste energy advocate Cornelius Suchy.

The Local Food Initiative has drawn attention to Revelstoke‘s dependence on imported food.  To turn this problem into an opportunity, the LFI wants to “empower the community to enhance local food production” and use.

Concerns about food security also apply to fuel: many of us rely on imported propane to heat our homes.Without gasoline or diesel being trucked in, Revelstoke would come to a standstill fast. Beyond local food, could our fuel also be local and homegrown?

The answer is yes. And even better: fuel can grow on trees. More specifically, wood can be made into fuel, and this provides an opportunity for Revelstoke.

The idea of converting wood into fuel is not new.  As far back as the bronze age, wood was converted to charcoal by carbonization. Carbonization involves cooking wood in a low or no-oxygen environment, such as a charcoal clamp or a kiln. Today it is done in high-tech chemical reactors which operate under controlled conditions.

A second technology is coal liquefaction, converting coal into a liquid fuel. This method, called the Fischer-Tropsch process, was used by Germany during the Second World War to convert its plentiful coal resources to diesel when the Allied Forces blocked its fuel supply.

Today, both of these technologies are seeing a renaissance. One distinction is that charcoal from wood has replaced fossil coal, curbing carbon dioxide emissions. The biomass-to-liquid process essentially speeds up a process that took nature millions of years.

In the past creating these fuels would require a massive industrial complex, the kind of setting where James Bond would have a shoot-out. Over the past few years these reactors have been dramatically downsized. During a recent visit to a research lab in Germany, I saw a Fischer-Tropsch reactor that  historically would have been 17-metres tall, shrunk to the size of a stove. While a biomass-to-fuel plant requires more than a chemical reactor, converting wood to fuel might make sense for a small town such as Revelstoke.

Of course, there will need to be sustainability criteria in place, similar to the ones that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has put in place for products such as paper. For now this is not an issue: there is sufficient non-merchantable timber that is cut and left on the forest floor to be burned in slash piles, causing pollution. Taking pulp wood out is not cost effective because the market for pulp is depressed. Even closer to home, mills in town have large piles of bark and sawdust going unused. The unclaimed wood waste at Downie Sawmill alone would be enough to replace all of Revelstoke’s propane use.

Current low fuel prices make the economics of renewable fuel production challenging. A wood-to-fuel plant is more profitable than the conversion from propane to liquefied natural gas (LNG) proposed a couple of years ago. LNG would only replace one fossil fuel with another, whereas a local wood fuel is a sustainable, renewable solution that creates jobs at home. Converting the gas system to LNG would cost $25 million upfront and would need to be heavily subsidised to be viable. For around the same cost as LNG we can convert wood into a local, renewable fuel.

Revelstoke spends roughly $25 million a year on energy, most of which leaves town. Brewing our own fuel, whether for automotive or heating purposes, would keep the energy dollars in the community, create jobs and diversify our economy. A “made-in-Revelstoke” approach using local, craft-brewed fuel offers an extended 100-mile diet. This fits quite well with Revelstoke’s culture of doing things our way.