Finnish biomass experts visit Yukon to collaborate with First Nations; ignite woodchip revolution

WHITEHORSE— A few years ago, Finnish scientist Ville Kuittinen and his team at the Karelia University of Applied Sciences in Finland were sitting in the dark during a power outage.

“We thought: ‘This is silly,’” he said. “As researchers studying sustainable energy generation, we were so often left without power. That’s when we started exploring the potential of biomass to create electricity in small scale.”

Biomass is an industry term for producing heat or energy, or both, by burning natural materials, such as plants or woodchips. Using woodchips is more efficient than burning whole logs because the feed of combustible material can be controlled to create a constant stream of heat or energy.

Use of biomass technology is in its early stages in the Yukon. For example, the Teslin Tlingit Council recently purchased 10 woodchip boilers to provide heat to buildings in the community. Currently the machines are being installed, and Kuittinen and a Finnish team travelled to Teslin this week to share their expertise and learn from the community’s experiences.

“We are here to collaborate with the communities and the First Nations and work with them to get the project going,” said Kuittinen.

Currently, biomass accounts for 65 percent of energy produced through renewable technologies in Finland, or 25 percent of the total produced. It accounts for 5 to 6 percent of the total produced in Canada.

“Both Canada and Finland face similar challenges producing energy in subarctic climates and in providing energy and heat to sparsely populated areas,” said Jarno Valkeapää, Counsellor of Commercial and Trade Affairs with the Embassy of Finland in Ottawa. Valkeapää accompanied the scientists on their Yukon visit. “There is a knowledge transfer happening, so the expertise comes from Finland but then it stays here and the change happens in Canada.”

The Finnish collaboration came about after Stephen Mooney, Director of Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre, Yukon College, visited Finland to learn more about biomass. For Mooney, championing this technology in the Yukon is not only about finding a renewable energy source, but also about developing a social enterprise that solves problems, creates jobs, and builds the local knowledgebase.

“I have not found a better economic driver for a community than biomass,” said Mooney. “Local people can be hired to harvest the wood and operate the machines, and eventually this technology can help lead a community towards energy independence—it could be a woodchip revolution.”

Yukon College has also ordered a Volter machine, which can produce both heat and energy from woodchip fuel. The machine is currently at Natural Resources Canada’s Laboratory in Ottawa for testing, and the College plans to install it on the Whitehorse campus in 2018.

The Finnish delegation will be visiting Whitehorse, Teslin, and Haines Junction this week. They will also meet with local groups, and industry stakeholders.