Revelstoke’s Community Energy Corporation facility to be closed for months after fires

Fires at community owned wood waste utility puts it out of service for months. The future of the facility is not clear and our attempt to get answers from political leadership was unsuccessful.

Assessment and repair work is ongoing at the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation facility, pictured here in early March. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

The Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation’s (RCEC) wood waste energy facility will be offline for at least three months and possibly six months or more following two recent fires.

The facility, which is owned by the City of Revelstoke, is currently operating using a backup propane-burning system.

Normally, the facility burns wood waste generated by the Downie Street Sawmills, transferring heat to underground pipes that conduct it to several commercial buildings in Revelstoke, including the two downtown schools, Revelstoke City Hall, the Revelstoke Community Centre, the Revelstoke Aquatic Centre, and more. The facility also generates energy for lumber drying kilns at Downie Street Sawmills.

The first fire happened on Nov. 29, 2020, and was centred in the combustor area and in the nearby ductwork. Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services did not initially report that incident but did respond to subsequent media inquiries about the fire.

The second fire happened on Feb. 11, 2021, and the facility has been closed since.

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Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation manager Larry Marchand said both fires were mostly contained within the thermal oil heater and biomass combustor area of the facility.

Following the first fire, the system was repaired, and a third-party company was hired to do the work and guide it through a regulatory oversight process.

“Needless to say the second fire has caused a detailed expert review, which is underway,” Marchand said. “Early feedback from industry resources suggests an undetected original equipment flaw, but this is unconfirmed and will likely be next to impossible to empirically prove.”

Marchand said the current review of the system is much more involved, including regulatory oversight and involvement of insurers.

“Once we know the root cause of the series of fires, presuming the two events are linked, we will either repair or replace the failed equipment, with any design modifications that are likely to be incorporated,” he said.

Marchand said that decision on whether to repair or replace equipment will impact the timeline to get the facility back online. A repair option would take three months or more, a redesign and replace option six months, possibly more.

Fire in 2015

In 2015, there was a serious fire at the facility, which led to an insurance claim of about $2 million and resulted in increased insurance premiums.

RCEC fire fallout: Schools remain open, city pool questionable

What’s next for this municipal utility?

The recent changes to FortisBC’s propane pricing system creates new challenges for RCEC. Following a process before the B.C. Utilities Commission in 2020, early this year FortisBC changed its home propane pricing system to align it with natural gas prices in B.C. This significantly reduced the price of propane, affecting the competitiveness of RCEC, which holds long-term supply contracts with its customers. Will the customers renew when their contracts expire if cheaper alternatives are available?

In 2016, a chairman’s report by then chairperson Geoff Battersby noted the corporation’s aim of divesting ownership to FortisBC. “In keeping with previous attempts to privatize RCEC, the City is urging Fortis to purchase RCEC with a view to expanding it under the umbrella of its alternate energy branch,” Battersby stated in the report. The basic concept is that large energy corporations have various requirements to meet carbon emissions reduction targets, so perhaps FortisBC could meet some requirements by bringing the wood-waste-burning facility into its portfolio. Battersby also noted a loss of $81,000 during that period.

RCEC stopped uploading audited statements and chairperson’s comments to its website in 2016.

To follow up on questions about corporation finances, corporation future plans, impacts to city finances, and next steps from a governance point of view, Revelstoke Mountaineer sought out the current RCEC chairperson of this publicly owned facility, discovering that it is Mayor Gary Sulz. He declined our request for an interview.

There are many more paragraphs to write about RCEC and the future of the facility, but without the will from political leadership to communicate, this relevant community conversation ends with no response and a question mark.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.