From Beehive Ban to Hog Fuel Future: Regional Histories of the Energy Crisis

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a short series showcasing undergraduate student research in energy history. Megan Yaskow’s post is derived from a research paper written for the course North American Energy History, taught by Ben Bradley at UNBC.

Beehive burners, dry kilns, and wood chips are not commonly associated with the Energy Crisis. Instead, that historical event evokes images of long gas lineups, dissent over lowered speed limits, and concern about consumer culture, and is generally viewed as an American phenomenon. However, the effects of the 1973 and 1979 OPEC oil embargoes were not felt exclusively by Americans. Countries across the Western world were alerted to how their postwar prosperity and security had been predicated on energy pathways that were more vulnerable than previously recognized. Many took measures to diversify their energy supply. Provincial, state, regional, and municipal governments, as well as private industry, also responded with initiatives to draw on locally available energy sources. If the Energy Crisis is only studied from national or international perspectives, distinctive regional responses may easily be overlooked. Approaches that account for localized responses to the Energy Crisis can highlight little-known energy diversification paths, and ones that were only briefly or partially followed, thus presenting information relevant to today’s energy dilemmas.1 The British Columbia forest industry’s responses to the Energy Crisis during the late 1970s offers one example of the benefits to be gained from a regional approach to our energy future.

Sawmill with beehive burner at Quesnel, BC, 1980. Northern BC Archives and Special Collections, J. Kent Sedgwick fonds, 2012.

Despite BC’s relatively secure energy supply with large hydroelectric dams, vast deposits of natural gas, and good relations with oil-rich Alberta, in the late 1970s, the province embarked on several initiatives to promote the use of hog fuel: a mix of wood wastes left over from sawmills, combining sawdust, bark, and chips. In 1977 the BC Energy Commission established a committee to co-ordinate between the forest industry and the provincial and federal governments. Jointly funded by these parties, a program was undertaken to examine the feasibility of three modes of hog fuel energy: direct wood waste combustion to produce process heat for sawmill dry kilns; the use of wood wastes at large sawmills as fuel for co-generation of electricity and process heat; and gasification of wood waste to produce a fuel gas: methanol. An additional study was undertaken with BC Hydro to identify possible sites where wood waste fuel could fire thermal stations and co-generation facilities that would feed into the provincial electrical grid.2

During the 1960s and early 1970s the BC forest industry had tackled issues of smoke pollution from extensive use of beehive burners: towering industrial structures established near mills for burning undesirable wood wastes. Having phased out this polluting technology relatively quickly, the forest industry seemed poised to meet the energy challenge head-on. Addressing the 1977 Council of Forest Industries of BC symposium, commission chairman Norman Gish called on industry leaders to voluntarily shift away from fossil fuels, while also emphasizing that they should prepare for a complete phase-out. The forest industry accounted for 65-70 percent of BC’s industrial sector fuel consumption, but Gish declared his optimism that “the industry has the technical competence to tackle and solve the energy crisis. The pollution crisis was met and the industry can be proud of the way that problem was resolved. Now it will have to turn its attention to the energy crisis.” Gish also assured his audience that the provincial government was “hoping to avoid the coercive approach.”3

Beehive burners fitted with pollution control technology on River Road in Prince George, 1975. Northern BC Archives and Special Collections, J. Kent Sedgwick fonds, 2012.

With this hopeful precedent, plus the implicit warning of possible regulation, the forest industry began seeking ways to diversify its energy consumption. Conveniently coinciding with a wood waste accumulation problem following the province’s new pollution controls, British Columbia was afforded an extra incentive to reduce the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels and, in the process, also hoped to develop a significant new export in the form of methanol.4 Conservation and efficient use of BC’s energy resources evidently became a priority of many businesses in this energy insecure era. For large mill operations, adopting hog fuel as an energy source appeared a cost-effective way of generating mill power while removing wood waste with little additional effort. But to do so without bringing back the pollution problem required investments in new technology. Larger mills often received government assistance to initiate the transition. For example, in 1978 Energy Minister Alastair Gillespie announced $700,000 in federal funds for Macmillan Bloedel and Lamb-Cargate to put towards a wet cell-burner at their Port Alberni pulp mill, which would produce heat for a lime kiln. Westwood Polygas received $300,000 to assist with its experimental wood gasification plant at the Ainsworth Lumber Company’s sawmill at Chasm, near Clinton, which was intended to power a dry kiln.

Energy systems utilizing wood waste were promoted to smaller operations as an almost inevitable future alternative, due to the rising cost of natural gas and electricity and because they helped avoid waste disposal issues.5 Small operations were also sites of experimentation. For example, the Plateau sawmill’s pollution-free kiln heating system in Vanderhoof resulted in plans for a larger model at the Kootenay Forest Products sawmill at Nelson.6 In 1978, the Telkwa Foundation in Smithers invited representative Richard Kania from Integ, a Vancouver based power generation consulting firm, to speak to mill representatives about wood waste systems, and he explained how the small Bond Brothers sawmill at Vanderhoof and the much larger Northwood operation at Prince George had both successfully implemented steam-heating operations.7

Local frustration over continued inefficient use of wood waste. From “Hydro Stalling Project,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, Sept 5 1979, 31.

Most local governments and newspapers welcomed new wood waste energy facilities. The municipality of Quesnel, which was home to two pulp mills and several large sawmills, was particularly enthusiastic about the use of hog fuel technology. Since the phase-out of polluting beehive burners, Quesnel had struggled to find methods to effectively dispose of locally produced wood waste. Thus, innovative ways of burning hog fuel for energy offered a convenient solution. As Tri Pac Studs mill manager Cliff Sandwell explained to the Cariboo Observer, “the time seemed ripe for an investigation of a wood waste disposal system which could both solve escalating problems and simultaneously dispose of the operation’s wood waste problems.”8 The BC Energy Commission paid particular attention to what it referred to as “the Quesnel problem,” and undertook studies on the possibility of producing direct process heat and electricity from waste materials.9 While recognizing that complete utilization of the Quesnel forest industry’s wood waste as an energy source was a long way down the road, the Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company reported that it was using hog fuel in the production of steam-fired electricity, while the Weldwood pulp mill was using leftover wood to heat boilers and generate steam.10 By 1980, the Observer could report that “BC Hydro is well along with feasibility studies of a 50-megawatt plant in Quesnel to use hog fuel, now wasted by forest producers.”11

Through the 1970s, the BC forest industry once again began burning undesirable wood refuse on a large scale; however, this time it did so with a purpose besides mere waste removal. Backed by multiple levels of government, both industry leaders and small operations undertook experiments in capturing the energy potential of sawmill wood waste. While the general history of energy transitions in BC deserves further in-depth research, the provincial forest industry’s largely independent response to 1970s predictions of future scarcity demonstrates the relevance of a regional approach to the Energy Crisis. As this study of just one industry in one province suggests, the application of localized analysis to a wide array of industries may lead to a more comprehensive representation of past energy transition attempts and facilitate the knowledge gained from nuanced power projects towards current and future energy dilemmas.

[1] For an example of the advantages to taking a regional approach to energy history, see Jeffrey T. Manuel, “Lessons From a Forgotten Fuel: Assessing the Long History of Alcohol Fuel Advocacy and Use in the United States,” History and Technology 37, 4 (2021): 411-428.

[2] “Wood Waste as an Energy Source,” Salmon Arm Observer, Oct 13 1977, 4; H.A. Simons, Hog-fuel Co-generation Study, Quesnel, British Columbia: A Summary Report (Vancouver: British Columbia Wood-Waste Energy Coordinating Committee, 1978).

[3] Mark Wilson, “Forest Firms Warned on Energy,” Vancouver Province, June 22 1977, 13.

[4] “Len Marchand: BC Could Develop New Export,” Eagle Valley News [Sicamous], Feb 28 1979, 13.

[5] “Waste from Sawmills Could Heat the Whole Town,” Interior News [Smithers], Apr 12 1978, 2.

[6] “Wood Waste Fuel Plan Paying Off,” Vancouver Sun, Jan 22 1977; Vancouver Province, Jan 27 1978.

[7] “Waste from Sawmills Could Heat the Whole Town.”

[8] “Manager Paints Grim Picture: Wood Waste Energy Still in Remote Future,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, Feb 22 1978, 7.

[9] “Wood Waste to Be Studied,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, Nov 16 1977, 15.

[10] “Some Wood Waste Utilized,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, Oct 5 1977, 10.

[11] “Energy Grows on Trees,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, May 10 1980, 3.

Feature image: Northern BC Archives and Special Collections, J. Kent Sedgwick fonds, 2012.
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Megan Yaskow

Megan Yaskow is undertaking her BA in History at the University of Northern British Columbia and is currently a curatorial assistant at the Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum in Prince George. Megan's research interests include British Columbian history, postwar Canadian history, and energy crisis history.

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