UVic considers on-campus biomass energy plant

On March 27, UVic hosted its first Open House as part of the feasibility study for a proposed on-campus biomass thermal energy plant. The university has partnered with a company that specializes in energy systems, Dalkia Canada, to conduct a feasibility study to explore greener initiatives as set out by the university’s Integrated Energy Master Plan. The main goal of the study is to determine the financial, geographical and environmental practicality of a biomass plant on campus.

Biomass is biological material from living or recently living organisms. A biomass thermal energy plant uses wood waste such as landfill-destined demolition wood, forestry-sourced materials like saw dust and wood chips and forest byproducts that are otherwise left to rot. UVic’s feasibility study aims to look at the logistical issues behind fuel sourcing.

“[The biomass] could come from anywhere that can be reasonably reached on the Island by truck,” says Karl Marietta, head of the technical project team. “It’s all going to be local.”

Tom Smith, UVic’s executive director of facilities management, estimates that the plant will need three truck-loads of wood waste per day during the winter months. He says the trucks would be a bit smaller than a typical bus.

Energy plant location and fuel transporting distance will be considered in the study.

If approved, the plant will cover about half an acre of land, or roughly the same area as the First Peoples House. Smith says it would probably be sized to deal with 60 per cent of the winter building heating load, but would account for approximately 90 per cent of UVic’s annual overall heating needs.

Currently, 65 per cent of UVic’s buildings are heated by natural gas-fueled boilers. Every year, the university spends $3.5 million on natural gas; more than 80 per cent of this goes to towards powering the boilers. One of the main goals of the feasibility study is to determine the financial changes the project would incur.

UVic pays roughly $410 000 per year in carbon tax. The carbon tax UVic paid for the month of January alone was $58 000. Smith estimates the university can save up to $750 000 per year by switching to biomass. He says he supposes that if the university can reduce its energy costs, more money stays in the university.

UVic has undergone recent budget cuts, and there will be costs associated with building the plant and even funding the eight-month-long feasibility study. But Dalkia Canada would design, build, operate and maintain the plant, and UVic would simply buy hot water from the company. This means that the estimated building investment of $12 million would be paid out by Dalkia Canada. However, the price of hot water changes depending on the overall project costs. Smith says if the cost of buying hot water is high, the university will apply for grants to pay for part of the principal cost of the building so the price of hot water will drop.

The $300 000 paid by UVic for the feasibility study will be rolled back into the hot water budget if the energy services agreement is signed with Dalkia Canada. If the plant is rejected, that money will be lost.

“If we put an end to [the project] because we’re not going to achieve what we want to achieve, then we will end it and spend that much money,” says Smith. “It’s a structured agreement, but it’s a really good agreement for the university.”

The study will also look at the environmental aspects of the project.

The current natural gas boiler system accounts for 70 per cent of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions. A biomass plant would reduce this figure, but it wouldn’t be emission free.

“It’s important that we build and design and cost in a really good system to deal with those emissions,” says Smith. “That’s a no-brainer.”

The feasibility study’s estimated completion date is October 2013, at which time the university will decide if a biomass plant is in its future.

Smith says, “I really believe that if [the plant] can do what we think it can do in terms of saving money and achieving our greenhouse gas reduction strategies, then that would be just fantastic.”

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