Government Cold on Coal

Climate Change, Commentary, Energy, Frontier Centre, Rural, Worth A Look

The provincial government has blindsided rural Manitobans again with their announcement of a complete ban on the use of coal for space and water heating in 2014.  While coal doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to clean energy, it’s cheap and it generates a lot of heat and in areas that are poorly served by alternatives, such as natural gas, its use is widespread.

In 2008, the Province announced their intention to phase out coal use in the province and announced a coal tax that would begin at $10/tonne and rise to $30/tonne over three years.  The tax came into effect as of Jan. 1, 2012 and payments are due by March 2013. This was the future coal users were expecting and they planned accordingly.

Neither government not producer groups have a firm grasp on the number of coal users in the province, but coal is used to heat large spaces such as hog barns, shops and greenhouses and many Hutterite colonies use coal for their heating needs too. The fact remains that these rural Manitobans chose coal because it made the most economic sense.

So if coal users can no longer burn coal, what are they to use as a heat source?  The government wants coal users to switch to biomass and are offering grants to help offset the difference in purchase price (biomass is more expensive than coal) and to help develop biomass products. Biomass is made from agricultural residue (such as straw), agri-processing byproducts (such as oat hulls), compacted biomass (such as wheat chaff pellets), forestry residues (such as hog fuel) or purpose grown crops (such as willows).

The problem is that at present, this industry isn’t well developed; there aren’t that many people producing biomass and there aren’t that many people experienced in retrofitting heating equipment. Two years isn’t a lot of time to develop a properly functioning, knowledgeable industry or sector, especially when it will be flooded with demand, although no one quite knows how much, within that time.

Despite rural Manitobans being cut off from using coal, the province’s two largest coal users, Manitoba Hydro and a lime plant in Faulkner, are exempt from the ban. These two users have experimented with biomass and have found that they are unable to generate the heat they need. They will continue to pay the coal tax.

The problem with the proposed ban is that it appears to be more about optics than about making a real difference to our environmental footprint. While biomass is natural and absorbs carbon dioxide while it grows it still takes energy to get it to the end user. If it’s a crop residue, it’s probably close to the end user to begin with, but must still be gathered and delivered. If it’s an agri-processing byproduct, it will have to come from an urban centre, where the processing is done. All of this burns fossil fuel.

If the government were really looking at decreasing fossil fuel use, what about Manitoba’s clean hydro power?  It’s generated (for the most part) by water and is carried right to the end user by wire, requiring no trucking or harvesting.

The fact remains that biomass isn’t the best solution for everyone or necessarily the one that offers the best environmental benefit. Despite this, there are only grants available to those who switch to biomass.

Most people are supportive of the need to move away from coal and biomass will play a role in our future. For rural residents, it offers a unique benefit in that it can be produced on-farm and create energy security. There are serious concerns, however, about its ability to meet demand and if the industry is to function properly, pushing through its adoption is unlikely to work in the long run. The government should have stuck with their proposed plan of increasing taxes to discourage coal use. Coal users would have responded by moving towards other fuel sources until all that remained were those using the most efficient systems. At the end of the day, the move shows that rural Manitobans are again being forced to pay for legislation that looks good to outsiders.