Stories & Features

Wood chips help power Kwadacha First Nation, cutting carbon emissions

Gasifier at Kwadacha biomass power project
A German-engineered gasifier produces gas from wood chips that power an internal combustion engine generator for the remote Kwadacha First Nation community at Fort Ware, B.C.

Power project also provides heat for school, greenhouses

How much wood would a wood chipper chip if a wood chipper could chip wood? And how much electricity and heat could those wood chips reliably produce?

That very much depends on the quality of the wood chips produced for the relatively unique process of biomass gasification , and whether there's an ongoing supply of wood.

Kwadacha First Nation (Tsek'ene) is located in Fort Ware, a community 570 km north of Prince George. Chips produced from an abundant supply of pine beetle kill timber are helping power the community in what is likely the first off-grid utility standard biomass gasification-to-electricity project in the world. In operation since April 21, 2017, the Kwadacha Biomass project is designed to generate enough electricity to significantly reduce the community's reliance on diesel-generated electricity.

That adds up to greenhouse gas reductions of about 400 tonnes a year, and is in-line with BC Hydro's ongoing efforts to help remote B.C. communities – too far away from the electricity system to be serviced by the 98% clean energy generated by BC Hydro – reduce their fossil fuel emissions. But there's more to the story.

What would otherwise be waste heat from the gasification and internal-combustion generation processes will be used to heat the community's school and greenhouses in the cooler months, and to dry the wood chips at other times.

"This independent power project is expected to reduce local diesel generation by 20 to 25%," said Ben Skillings, a project manager with a BC Hydro team that helped bring the unique, challenging project to fruition. "It also provides heating for the local school and greenhouses, thereby displacing expensive propane and associated emissions."

Prior to the plant coming online, Kwadacha First Nation relied entirely on diesel and propane for their electrical and heating needs, with BC Hydro providing the diesel generation operation since 2013.

BC Hydro operates the diesel plant, but under a 20-year Electricity Purchase Agreement with Kwadacha, now buys power from the Kwadacha Biomass project and will reduce diesel generation by that amount. Capital funding for the project was helped by grants from a variety of provincial and federal government programs.

"We ran off diesel for too long, and this project brings some much-needed infrastructure to our very remote community," said Kwadacha Nation Chief Donny Van Somer. "It also created a few much-needed jobs and is a step closer to our vision of self-sustainability."

Image of Kwadacha biomass plant
Wood chips are processed in a containerized biomass system at the Kwadacha First Nation.

About the technology: How biomass gasification works

Hamid Tamehi, BC Hydro's engineering team lead for non-integrated (off-grid) areas, is excited about the Kwadacha Biomass IPP. And he's the guy tasked with explaining the project's technology in a way we can all understand.

According to Tamehi, everything starts with the wood chips, which must meet a "very exacting requirement" for size, moisture content and purity. No bark or other material can be mixed with the chips, which are then fed to a containerized biomass plant. The equipment was assembled and tested in a German factory before being shipped to Canada.

"The chips are partially burned in three gasifiers to generate wood gas which is then cooled and filtered before being fed to three internal combustion engine generators," said Tamehi.

Heat from the gasification process, and from the cooling system for the internal combustion engines that produce the electricity, is extracted and used in a district heating system for the local school and greenhouses.

Tamehi says the project got the green light from BC Hydro in large part because it was a commercial technology with many successful installations in Europe. What hadn't been done before was employing the process at a remote, off-grid location where reliability – and an ongoing supply of wood – is vital.

Is it a system that can be installed in other remote, diesel-powered communities in B.C.? . Only if the conditions are right.

"Only if other communities have a similar resource, in terms of wood supply, that can yield good quality chips," he says. ""It also needs to meet the aspirations of the community. In this case, biomass also generates good employment on an ongoing basis, from logging, chipping, drying as well as operation and maintenance of the plant and the district heating system."

BC Hydro and Kwadacha Nation

BC Hydro has a long history with Kwadacha First Nation, dating back to the construction of the WAC Bennett Dam when their land was flooded. In addition to developing a more environmentally-friendly source of energy, this project is also part of addressing past grievances with the community.

"This project serves as a reminder for us to work together to empower communities like Kwadacha to build sustainable and energizing legacies for generations to come," said Russell Dobie, a senior manager with BC Hydro's transmission and distribution projects team. "We have come a long way in our relationship with Kwadacha, and we look forward to building it further as we see success for them through this project."

Carolyn Stock, BC Hydro's relationship lead with the Kwadacha Nation, says working with the community on the project has been "a privilege and an honour."

"It has enabled us to strengthen our relationship with the Nation and move forward in a positive direction together," said Stock. "We look forward to seeing their success in the months and years ahead."