Forestry has a long history in Northern Ontario.
Traditionally, “innovation” revolved mostly around better ways to cut down trees and replant them afterwards. But today’s forestry companies, including Resolute Forest Products, are exploring innovation in different, environmentally friendly directions.
Take its Thunder Bay sawmill, operated in collaboration with Fort William First Nation.
A new multi-million-dollar investment added a wood pellet plant to turn its previously waste sawdust into 50,000 tonnes of biomass fuel per year. Sound like a lot? It is — enough to help fuel the Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Atikokan Generating Station, which recently converted from coal to wood pellets.
“It’s a huge savings in terms of importing fossil fuels from outside, greenhouse gas emissions, and moving to these lower emissions options,” said Stephanie Shumsky, a sustainability specialist at Resolute Forest Products.
The station will use 45,000 tonnes per year, so Resolute is exploring the possibility of selling the remaining 5,000 tonnes commercially for residential heating. “It’s a great way to use a byproduct from the mill, and transform it pretty handily into something that can be so useful.”
For Resolute, it’s a clear win-win. “Not only are you being environmentally friendly and doing the right thing for the planet, but you’re making your mills more competitive,” Shumsky said. Plans for the pellet plant started when the Ontario government announced it would be phasing out coal generating stations.
It’s certainly a win for Atikokan, too, since it keeps the OPG plant operating. Resolute is also opening a new sawmill in Atikokan (the company restarted another earlier this year in Ignace).
“We are proud to have Resolute operating near our community as they are not only hiring our town’s people, but also because we know that they are committed to harvesting trees while maintaining biodiversity and protecting social and environmental forest values,” wrote Angela Sharbot on behalf of Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown.
“We’re really interested in working with the communities where we operate,” Shumsky said.
The Thunder Bay sawmill itself also illustrates socioeconomic innovation. It’s operated in partnership with Fort William First Nation — the first facility in Canada to operate under the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act. The new pellet plant created about 10 new jobs.
“(Resolute) provides well-paying, high-quality jobs with excellent benefits and growth opportunities,” wrote Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins. “We are proud to have Resolute operating in our community.”
Resolute recently signed Memoranda of Agreements (MOAs) with seven other First Nations in the region worth over $100 million, mostly related to sawmill operations, including construction, transportation, and yard services.
Resolute is exploring other ways of reducing its carbon footprint. It installed a co-generator at its pulp and paper mill in Thunder Bay which converts heat into steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.
Forest stewardship is important, too, Shumsky said, with Resolute planting their billionth tree a few years ago at the Thunder Bay pulp and paper mill. This past May, Resolute participated in Sustainable Forest Initiative’s Guinness Book of World Records attempt for the most trees planted in one hour by small teams. With groups across North America including three teams in northwestern Ontario, they shattered the old record with 200,000 trees planted in one hour.
“It was really exciting and a great day bringing together a lot of dedicated people who are tree planters, and kind of show off the scale of regeneration,” Shumsky said.