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Biomass solution for Norman Wells’ dwindling natural gas supplies ?

October 20, 2012

The mayor of Norman Wells is pitching a $38M biomass plant as a solution for the town’s energy needs. His opponent says this solution is untried and expensive.

Imperial Oil has set a deadline of June 2013 for businesses to switch from natural gas due to supply depletion. In the remote town of about 800, about 175 homes and numerous businesses in Norman Wells use natural gas — a byproduct of oil production — for heat, hot water and cooking purposes. 

Incumbent mayor Dudley Johnson had been promoting a proposal to convert the town to biomass. The biomass project could cost more than $38 million but Johnson said he is confident he could get federal grants in place by December to help pay for the transition.

Harold McGregor, Johnson’s challenger, (and now the mayor elect) said people are worried about tying up the town’s borrowing power, especially as Norman Wells faces a potential population increase and greater demands on its infrastructure due to the increased oil and gas exploration. McGregor said biomass heating systems are unproven so far north.

Aurora College has studied wind energy as a possibility for Norman Wells in 2008, suggesting part of the town’s energy needs could be met for a $4.7-6.7 M capital investment plus ongoing subsidies.


There is a lot of exploration for oil and gas in the Norman Wells area underway. In the medium term one would expect more supply to feed into the Imperial Oil facility in the Wells and for the Encana oil pipeline to Alberta. The Norman Wells pipeline is 12 inches in diameter, and has the capacity to transport 39,400 barrels-per-day of sweet crude oil. It stretches 869 kilometres from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, to Zama, Alberta. It was officially opened in May 1985.

In the short term it does not seem like an alternative energy solution, like biomass or wind, is feasible. The town will have to work on a solution in the next few months - propane or diesel seem the most likely choices.