Fort McPherson takes the lead in biomass heating

Fort McPherson takes the lead in biomass heating
Johnny Kay, coordinator with the Tetlit Gwich’in Council’s new wood chip boiler project, says the boiler not only saves the community money, but employs local staff and uses sustainable fuel.Photo: Lawrence Keyte.

While fuel bills skyrocket with the mid-winter chill, the Tetlit Gwich’in Council in Fort McPherson is feeling toasty warm operating its new wood chip boiler that has put the community at the forefront of biomass energy solutions in the NWT.

Operating on wood pellets, chips and split wood, the boiler was installed last fall to pipe heat into the band office and the nursing station, both of which had high heating costs in the past.

Johnny Kay, coordinator of the boiler project, told The Journal it’s too early to crunch the numbers, but there is every indication the First Nation is saving a bundle compared to what it paid for oil last year to heat both buildings.

“It’s a good thing we got it going before the coldest parts of the year,” he said.

The initial cost for installing the boiler was not cheap, but the First Nation was able to secure funding from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Natural Resources Canada for the project, which they touted as an environmentally friendly way of cutting energy costs and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Kay was behind the original idea to bring a wood chip boiler to Fort McPherson, which dates back to 2010 when he and another community member attended a biomass project conference in Whitehorse.

“I thought, we have the biofuel right here in our backyard,” he said.

Convinced his community was ideal for a boiler, Kay said he brought the idea to the elders who were immediately supportive, then circulated plans to the chief and council, the hamlet government and the local youth council.

“The community members believed in what we were doing and the leadership were standing behind it,” he recalled.

It took three years for the project to go through the paperwork, including feasibility and environmental studies. The boiler was installed last November and began officially piping out heat to the buildings in December.

Now that it’s operational, another huge benefit of the project is that it employs local workers, Kay said.

“The money stays in the community and in the territory,” he said. “We are paying our local community members to do the work that needs to be done to get our wood supply and deliver it to the site.”

Recently, Kay arranged for the local youth hockey team to split wood and store it for the boiler in order to earn money to pay for their tournaments.

The First Nation has yet to determine how many staff will be hired full time for the project, but Kay expects there will be several needed to maintain a steady supply of biofuel, which is restricted to sustainable dry wood, including willow branches and trees cleared for firebreaks and along the highways.

“There are still a few bugs to iron out, but we learn from it and we will be ready for the next season,” he said. “We are learning as we go.”

Kay said once the cost benefit analysis comes through this spring, he expects the community will look into connecting the boiler to other buildings or even installing another boiler.

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