UNBC and Harvard: #1 in Sustainability

October 12, 2010

Doug Carter
UNBC's Capital Projects Manager displays a few of the wood pellets that are burned in the boiler behind him to heat the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Laboratory. Download the high-resolution image.

“This case study illustrates the multiple cascading benefits that can occur when a community is engaged with the academic and operational goals of a campus"

Those were among the words of one judge when the University of Northern British Columbia received the top award in 2010 from North America’s premier college and university sustainability organization. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) selected UNBC’s bioenergy project for its ability to connect teaching and research to campus operations, while serving as a model for communities and other campuses. The award was announced in Denver in front of 2,400 delegates at AASHE’s annual conference. UNBC is sharing the top prize with Harvard University.

Click to view video of UNBC receiving the award at the AASHE Awards ceremony on October 11, 2010.

UNBC’s bioenergy project currently consists of two components: a wood pellet system at the I. K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Laboratory and a biomass gasification system currently under construction. In both cases, the fuel is from the local forest industry, either in the form of wood pellets or residue from sawmill operations. Both systems also heat water, which integrates with the existing systems on campus to heat the buildings and provide hot water on campus. But how they actually function is different: the wood pellet system burns pellets to produce heat while the gasification actually converts biomass to a synthetic gas that is then burned.

Click to see how the systems work.

“Perhaps most significantly, both systems are models for Canada, and indeed, North America,” says UNBC President George Iwama, who was in Denver to accept the AASHE award. “They are models for using local, renewable energy. They are models for energy efficiency and ultra-low emissions. They are models for how to integrate campus operations into teaching and research that is of tremendous value for our region. I’ve been involved with universities for nearly 40 years, and I’ve never been involved with a project like this.”

Aerial of UNBC
Aerial view of the bioenergy projects at UNBC's Prince George campus. Download the high-resolution image. 

While UNBC’s bioenergy project is being recognized for its leadership, it’s also 16 years late. When the Prince George campus opened in 1994, the campus was designed to be “off the grid.” The capital budget didn’t allow for such an investment at the time, but the infrastructure has always been ready for this type of development. Capital Projects Manager Doug Carter has been with UNBC since 1994, the same year UNBC opened with full operations. “We only needed to make an installation in one part of our existing power plant to instantly convert almost our entire campus to renewable energy,” says Carter.

ASSHE Awards
Left to right: UNBC president George Iwama, UNBC Green University Projects and Capital Projects Managers Danielle Smyth and Doug Carter, and Harvard representative Kevin Bright at the AASHE Award Ceremony in Denver on Monday, Oct. 11, 2010. Download the high-resolution image.

For northern communities, the bioenergy project is simply the right thing at the right time. The region has recently been confronted with many challenges ranging from the mountain pine beetle infestation to a severe drop in American home construction and the closure of mills. In 1998, the first overseas export of wood pellets from Canada originated from the Prince George area; today, BC wood pellet exports are worth about $170 million per year.

Dr. George Iwama
UNBC president George Iwama addressing the crowd at the event. Download the high-resolution image.

MLA Shirley Bond
MLA Shirley Bond. Download the high-resolution image.

“I’ve been involved with the forest industry in this region for 35 years and bioenergy is part of our future,” says Brian Fehr, President of the BID Group of companies based in Vanderhoof, 100 kilometres west of Prince George. “In this region, we’re among the best in the world at producing forest products but connecting our know-how to the University is essential for taking our industry to the next level and really being a national centre of excellence for wood products and bioenergy.”

Fehr was among the speakers at an event that was held at UNBC to celebrate the AASHE award. Also on hand were more than 200 community members, university students, faculty, and staff to hear remarks from the local MLAs and MPs who provided the funding to develop UNBC’s bioenergy project. To date, the project has received $16.2 million from the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, the Innovative Clean Energy Fund, the BC Public Sector Energy Conservation Agreement, and the federal Community Economic Diversification Initiative.  The pellet system has been operational since June 2009 and the gasification system is currently under construction. It is scheduled to be operational by early 2011.

UNBC's ASSHE award is in the foreground as Member of Parliament Dick Harris speaks at the podium. Download the high-resolution image.

“When the pellet system was installed, it was touted as the greenest system of its kind in North America,” says Fehr. “In its first year of operations, its emissions were already equivalent to natural gas. That kind of evidence is vital to our industry. What can the ash be used for? How do we manage our forests for multiple values? How can we sustain our resource-based communities? How do we access new markets? These are the kinds of questions we’ll be able to answer through education and research in partnership with local communities and research. This award just recognizes the potential. I can’t wait for the future.”


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