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Wood pellets and Propane duke it out

January 16, 2014

There is an interesting article about wood pellet use in the NWT in the Globe and Mail. The community of Norman Wells is facing the demise of its natural gas supplies and is considering wood pellets as a replacement.

In Norman Wells diesel is not competitive. The article notes that “...a pellet boiler is typically 20 to 50 per cent cheaper to run than one that burns diesel, making wood an attractive alternative for northern consumers. While the cost of switching can be high – upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for a system – the difference in fuel cost means the initial investment can be recovered in five to 10 years provided the local infrastructure exists to supply wood pellets at a commercial scale.”

The local pellet business owner ships in pellets by truck from mills in Alberta to Fort Simpson and then barges down the Mackenzie River to Norman Wells during the summer months. This year he plans to expand his operations to accommodate 1,100 tonnes. There are no roads into Norman Wells so bringing propane in would have to be by water as well.

Biomass now supplies about one-sixth of the NWT government’s heating needs, and this is expected to grow. Wood pellets are a viable cheaper and more environmentally benign method of producing energy according to the website Pellergy (source b) and the Pellet Fuels Institute (source c).

Pellet fuel is a renewable, clean-burning and cost stable home heating alternative currently used throughout North America. It is a biomass product made of renewable substances – generally recycled wood waste. There are approximately 1,000,000 homes in the U.S. using wood pellets for heat.  The moisture content of pellets is substantially lower (4% to 8% water–compared to 20% to 60% for raw biomass). Less moisture means higher BTU value and easier handling especially in freezing situations with green raw biomass materials. Second, the density of pellet fuel is substantially higher than raw biomass (40 lbs. per cubic foot verses 10-25 lbs. per cubic foot in raw material form). More fuel can be transported in a given truck space, and more energy can be stored at your site. Third, pellets are more easily and predictably handled. Their uniform shape and size allows for a smaller and simpler feed system that reduces costs. The main disadvantages are the perhaps higher capital cost of a furnace, the pellet fuel cost and the space required for storage.

According to the NEB biomass is used as a heating fuel in about 1% of northern homes, compared to around 5% in all of Canada.


Propane may not be an option in Norman Wells, but it was considered by Inuvik,a community that has also seen its natural gas supply dry up. In some communities propane and wood pellets may offer consumers a choice for heating their homes. The trend to more use of wood pellets is likely to continue.