A heating facility being developed by the Fort Smith Métis Council could have wide-ranging implications for heating Northwest Territories buildings. The council expects a new biomass heating system to reduce its annual heating costs by two-thirds.
The project, expected to break ground this month, is one-of-a-kind in the NWT, but council took its cue from a similar project in Alaska, according to George Kurszewski, economic development manager for the Fort Smith Métis Council. Using a smokeless biomass heating system from Garn, a Minnesota-based company that developed the unique “hydronic boiler system” in the 1980s, it will be fueled by local timber that is cut and dried as cordwood. The council expects the new heating plant to be operational by late summer and plans to be ready to switch from oil heating by winter.
The biomass heating system will, when construction is completed this summer, be used to heat four Métis council buildings – its headquarters, Roaring Rapids Hall, the Evergreen Building and the Secretariat Building. All four reside on the same block.
“We’re converting all four of them through a district heating project that is going to be taking the place of oil, so we’re going to actually be using cordwood,” Kurszewski said.
According to him, the Garn boiler runs efficiently on dry wood and doesn’t produce any smoke. The system uses an internal fan system as a bellows to produce a very hot fire, which heats a water tank. Unlike some biomass heating systems, it doesn’t waste any energy, he said. Although he noted there are comparable systems on the market, the Métis council chose the Garn system because it has already been proven workable in the North.
“So it seemed like a natural fit for us to do something with it in terms of utilizing some of our resources and addressing some of the energy issues because all of these buildings are heated by fuel oil,” Kurszewski said. “There’s a cost to that, and that cost, of course, leaves town because the multinational companies that provide the supply up here aren’t even from Canada.”
Kurszewski projects the total retrofit cost to be $180,000, but with federal and territorial alternative energy program funding, the total out-of-pocket cost to the council is $30,000 – the cost of a year’s worth of oil to heat the facilities. For council, should the project be successful (and Kurszewski said there is no reason to think it won’t be), it will almost pay for itself in the first year of operation.
“There’s not much risk and there’s quite a lot of benefit,” Kurszewski said.
Using 300 cords of locally-cut wood per year as fuel, Kurszewski said he expects heating costs to be $10,000 per year, but won’t know for sure until after the first year of operation. It will also create woodcutter jobs for people in Fort Smith, he said.
“The cost of acquiring the resources is very low. It’s just a little bit of human labour. And that aspect is good, too, because it’s job creation,” Kurszewski said.
The council will keep its oil heating system in place as a backup to the new biomass boiler.
The Fort Smith Métis Council investigated other heating systems while looking for an alternative to oil. One of those alternatives was a wood pellet stove, but Kurszewski said the Garn system looked to be more cost-effective while being as efficient as burning pellets. Additionally, wood pellets have additional costs in processing and transportation.
With the unstable price of oil, Kurszewski said the council’s project could pave the way for similar projects throughout the NWT. He said he’s looking at the biomass heating facility as the first step towards providing a cost-effective heating option for everyone in the North. For instance, Garn systems (or similar ones from other manufacturers) could be used to heat public housing units at a greatly reduced cost, he said.
“The potential for significant impact from this project is there. If it proves itself, it’s going to present lots of good options to other people besides ourselves,” Kurszewski said.