Southland urged to switch to wood boilers for lower carbon future

Experts say Southland's approach to dealing with air quality issues could be a model for the rest of New Zealand, as well as save lives and move the region towards a lower-carbon future.

Business leaders from throughout Southland and the rest of New Zealand gathered at the Kelvin Hotel on Thursday for the Commercial Biomass Boilers Symposium. At the day-long conference, a variety of speakers discussed the experiences, advantages, and future potential of switching from using coal-powered boilers for heating to wood chip-powered boilers.

Venture Southland business projects coordinator Cathy Jordan said new air quality regulations further highlighted the need to switch to more environmentally friendly boilers. As a boiler could be used for 25 years or more, it was important to think about future impacts when installing one, she said.

Several southern businesses and schools had already switched to wood boilers, including Splash Palace and Takitimu School, Donovan Primary School, and Waihopai School.

Jordan said the overall goal of switching to wood boilers was to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, which could improve people's health and save lives.

Part of the purpose of the conference was to provide an update to the progress of the Venture Southland project to encourage wood boiler use.

Known as Wood Energy South, the project has been funded for $1.5 million by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) until 2017.

Wood Energy South technical advisor Lloyd McGint said switching to wood boilers could save lives.

He pointed to a 2012 study which showed about 2300 New Zealanders were dying prematurely every year because of poor air quality.

"They're a cleaner boiler, so from an emissions perspective these boilers produce 50 to 70 per cent less emissions."

McGinty said an experiment using wood chips, with a 10 to 12 per cent moisture content from Niagara Sawmill, in a 1.2 megawatt boiler at the Southern Institute of Technology, instead of lignite coal, showed a potential annual savings of $2240. "There can be big savings," he said.

EECA project director Bill Brander said one of the advantages of using wood chips for boilers was that it used wood that would usually otherwise be waste. 

He said if wood boilers were widely adopted in Southland, despite the large amounts of coal available, it meant it could work anywhere in New Zealand. "We're trying to get it to a point where it's a critical mass."

Wood Energy South steering committee member Chris Henderson said while some people were nervous about the implications of wood-based boilers because of Southland's historic dependence on coal, their fears were unfounded. "The venture is gently ushering a transition to a lower-carbon economy."

Wood Energy South project manager Dinesh Chan said replacing a coal boiler with another coal boiler for heating was a poor decision, given what people now knew about the impact of emissions on the environment, he said. "If you choose to go coal, you're locking those emissions [in] for decades." He was encouraged by the work he had seen being done so far in Southland, he said.

"It could be a model for the rest of New Zealand."

 - Stuff