n:w explains
July 19, 2021

Wood pellets produce new ways of thinking about climate solutions

Canada’s wood pellet sector is built on a foundation of responsible fibre sourcing. Its ability for rapid innovation has asserted the sector as a global leader with a powerful role to play in building a low carbon economy, both domestically and globally.

Wood pellets made from residuals

Wood pellets produced from residuals: wood chips and sawdust, or tree limbs and branches that may have otherwise been left on the forest floor or burned.  Photo credit: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

The pellet industry itransitioning energy production and consumption away from fossil fuels, while also transforming the entire life cycle of common, every day items. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate change, has recognized the significant GHG mitigation potential of biomass, provided that it’s developed sustainably and used efficiently.

Wood pellets

Creating new opportunities

Wood pellets offer a world of possibilities, from mitigating the effects of climate change, to opening up new doors to new and improved products that reflect society’s desire for renewable and responsible choices. Driven by champions of the circular economy and motivated by the many benefits of developing Canada’s bioenergy industry, British Columbia’s wood pellet sector is creating new opportunities for forest health, renewable energy, and economic stability.  In order to understand more, we sat down with bioenergy expert, Dr. Fahimeh Yazdan Panah.  

Graphic: courtesy of Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

Expert Q&A

Dr. Fahimeh Yazdan Panah: Innovation Trailblazer

Meet Dr. Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, Director of Research, and Technical Development at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, Project Manager of BioMass Canada at UBC and a 14-year veteran making significant advances in applied research, policy and standard development for the Canadian wood pellet sector.

In a search for lower carbon sources of energy, governments and industries around the world have turned to biomass—renewable organic material, such as wood pellets—as a smarter, climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. But how can we ensure that wood pellets produced from sawmill or harvest waste in BC continue to be a sustainable product that help contribute to carbon neutral energy goals?  Dr. Yazdan Panah has made it a personal mission to answer these questions.

She is globally recognized for her leadership in greenhouse gas solutions and research related to safe use, storage and transportation of pellets. She is also an outspoken advocate for advancing meaningful and brave strategies that grow the participation of women in the forest products and energy sectors, starting with addressing bias in the hiring process.  

Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, PhD, Director of Research and Technical Development at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into this field? 

I was born and raised in Iran. I did my undergrad in Chemical Engineering at Tehran Polytechnic University. My specialty was in petroleum engineering but at the time, there were many discussions on climate change. I started looking into master’s programs related to renewable, clean energy at universities in Canada and Europeso when an invite came in 2007 to join the Biomass Bioenergy Research Group at The University of British Columbia (UBC), I seized the opportunity.  

To be honest, when I got the admission to UBC to do research on pellets as biofuel I didn’t even know what wood pellets were! Today, Canada is one of the biggest pellet producers in the world and there are still a lot of people in Canada that know nothing about pellets and the positive contribution they make to our lives and to climate change. I am working to change that.  

Bioenergy Research & Demonstration Facility, UBC | Photo credit: Don Erhardt

Q: What makes wood pellets a climate change solution?

First, you have to think about the fibre that goes into making pellets in British Columbia. Initially, wood pellets came about as a more environmentally friendly process to old beehive burners, an unfiltered system that was used to burn all the sawdust left over from sawmilling. When the beehive burners got phased out, the sawdust had to go somewhere … and pellets were a natural outlet. Pellets are made from the recovered “waste” from harvesting and sawmilling or low-quality logs that can’t be used for any other purpose. It’s a win-win all around for forest health and for air quality.

Pellets are also in high demand across the globe, helping countries reach their climate change targets as they transition away from fossil fuels. If you look at coal, for example, not only does it emit carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned, it is sourced from deep in the earth where it has taken millions of years to form. In comparison, energy made from woody biomass comes from the CO2 that the trees drew in. Within just one year of harvesting, a new forest starts the carbon absorption cycle all over again, not to mention, the other wood products created from the harvested trees still retain and store that carbon. So while burning wood waste to make energy may sound counterintuitive to some people when we think about lowering GHGs, it’s necessary to take into account the entire carbon cycle which includes the life cycle of a forest—as a forest grows it continues to store carbon.

A truck delivering fibre to Pinnacle Renewable Energy biomass facility | Photo courtesy of Wood Pellet Association of Canada

 

“Pellets are made entirely from the “waste” from harvesting and sawmilling or low-quality logs that can’t be used for any other purpose. It’s a win-win all around for forest health and for air quality.” 

Dr. Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, Director of Research and Technical Development at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada and Project Manager of BioMass Canada at UBC.  

Q: Are you excited about the future for pellets?

Yes! Pellets offer an opportunity to produce so many different types of high-value fuels and biomaterials. There is a lot of waste left over from sawmilling or harvesting that needs a home, and the best way to use it is to convert it to a homogenous, dense, and clean fuel.

In fact, every common thing in your home that is made from plastic could potentially be made from wood and look the same. We know the theory and chemistry of how to do it. It’s just about making those processes economic and scalable.  And it can start with pellets.

One of the most exciting advances for wood pellets is carbon capture and storage. Drax, a British electrical power generation company, was one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. They converted their coal boilers to run using wood pellets, which they source from Canada. Now, between using biomass as a fuel source and leveraging wood fibre’s ability to capture and store carbon, they have a feasible goal of being carbon negative by 2030. I’m really looking forward to seeing such developments in Canada. If we are really serious about meeting the greenhouse gas reductions required under the Paris Agreement we need to look at these examples.

Video

Pellets are a critical piece of forest health and the future of the bioeconomy

Q: Do you see the demand for pellets growing?

Energy producers and regulators around the world understand and respect the value of woody biomass for energy. Sixty percent of Europe’s renewable energy generation is bioenergy.

But if you talk to your neighbour about renewable energy, they probably think of wind and solar. People don’t hear about pellets and solid biofuels or recognize them as renewable energy when in fact they can lower GHG emissions by more than 80 percent compared to coal. I try to provide education and change perspectives on the role they have. If we’re really serious about greenhouse gas reductions, then we should be looking at the contribution of solid biofuels as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Loading ship with wood chips for export | Photo courtesy Port of Prince Rupert

Q: Are there any other factors that have contributed to the growth of the global wood pellet industry?

Forest management certifications such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Programme for the Endorsement of Certification and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative are independent organizations that set standards of sustainable forest management with legalities that help to ensure that even residuals from sawmilling or harvesting come from responsible sources. While these standards don’t include requirements for reporting energy data, the Sustainable Biomass Program fills this gap by creating a framework for suppliers to report third-party verified energy data customers, enabling them to calculate GHG emissions savings. Overall, we are contributing to healthier forests in Canada and greenhouse gas reductions globally.

Residual pile being loaded onto grinder | Photo courtesy of Wood Pellet Association of Canada

Q: What would it take in Canada or North America to follow in the steps of Asian and European countries?

It would require technology and wide policy measures. In Canada, we have the competitive advantage of having the most biomass per capita, but we have not really been converting any of our coal power plants to biomass. There is so much opportunity, but we need the right policy measures, technology and a change of perception. There is also the opportunity to use bioenergy to get remote communities off diesel power; this is being explored already in BC and other places in Canada.

Biomass delivery to Ontario Power Generation’s station plant in Atikokan, ON | Photo courtesy of Ontario Power Generation Plant  Association of Canada

Q: I can tell you’re passionate about what you do.

It isn’t just a job. I believe in these environmental issues and we are really contributing and making a difference. There is research that we need, there is policy that we need, and technologies that we need. We need to change public perceptions and provide education. Each job I do is working one of those angles. I try to cover and contribute to as much as I can and that makes it really interesting for me.

I also enjoy the relationships I have built across the forest sector. We have a safety call with our members once a month. I joke with everyone that it’s like a family coming together. They are sharing and open. It’s really an honour to be able to contribute to enhancing safety across the industry; I’m especially proud of the series I was involved in that is making a real difference.

Dr. Fahimeh Yazdan Panah | Photo credit: Biomass and Bioenergy Research Group at UBC