Over the past few months, I have had the great fortune of touring many parts of the Island through participation in 21 Inc’s PEI Leaders Program and meeting with leaders in various sectors of life, including business. What I have come away with from these experiences, is a realization that this little Island is chock full of innovative, progressive entrepreneurs, many of whom are transforming the way things are done in traditional industries, such as agriculture, fisheries, and forestry.
One such entrepreneur is Mathieu LeBlanc. Mathieu is the President and CEO of ACFOR Energy, which he co-owns with Dick Arsenault, and is also the founder of its sister company, ACFOR Inc. ACFOR specializes in sustainable forestry management and provides biomass fuel in the form of wood chips to large buildings such as schools and hospitals, allowing them to drastically reduce or eliminate their oil usage.
Here in PEI, ACFOR Energy is supplying biomass heat to 5 schools in Western PEI, as well as the Western Hospital, and anticipates continued expansion across the Island over the next few years.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mathieu LeBlanc in November of last year, when he gave the 21 Inc. group a tour of a woodlot that had been selectively thinned (I would never have known it had been touched by machines), and a tour of the woodchip heating system installed at Athena School in Summerside. From the moment he began to speak to our group, I had no doubt of Mathieu LeBlanc’s passion for the forests and for helping build PEI’s renewable energy sources. Early in January, I followed up with Mathieu to get his answers to some burning questions I still had about ACFOR and biomass energy.
Q1. You are clearly passionate about forests and nature, how did this passion develop and how did it help shape the way ACFOR operates?
When I was growing up, I was always in the woods. I went into the woods with my grandfather and I always liked the simplicity and calmness of the forest. When I was in high school someone told me that I could have a career in forestry, that’s when I was hooked and decided I want to spend the rest of my life as a forester. For me, the important thing was and still is to have quality, healthy forests, so that my children can experience the same feelings that I had when I was in the woods as a child.
Q2. ACFOR is an acronym for Acadian Forest. What is an Acadian Forest and why is it important that we sustain these forests in the Maritimes?
The Acadian Forest is a forest ecosystem. You have the boreal forest in the North and the hardwood forest in the South; the Acadian Forest is a mix of both forests. It is one of most diverse forests in the world because of the mix of hard and soft woods. Its diversity makes it unique, and that’s why it’s so important to manage that diversity and promote it.
Q3. There’s so much to be learned about forest management! Can you explain how removing trees from the forest benefits the forest itself as well as the woodlot owner?
Sustainable forestry management relies on selective thinning of the forest and is very good for both the forest and the woodlot owner. To use an analogy that people can relate to, think of a garden with a thick row of carrots. If the carrots are too close to each other, they won’t grow. You have to remove some of the carrots to allow the others to get the nutrients, water and sunlight they need. Once the row of carrots is thinned, the remaining carrots are able to grow much faster and larger. The same basic principles can be applied to managing a forest, with selective thinning allowing the remaining trees to thrive. From the woodlot owner’s perspective, selective thinning provides and excellent ROI, because they are increasing their yield per acre each year by three to four times and his land is more valuable. Finally, removing a certain percentage of trees will create light on the forest floor where a new generation of trees will be able to grow. This will create an uneven aged forest that will be healthier.
Q4. What exactly is biomass energy and what are its benefits compared to other sources of energy such as oil, wind or solar?
Biomass energy is all energy that is derived from organic material, such as energy crops (ethanol) and wood. Compared to oil, the biggest benefit is that it is renewable and, if managed properly, can be an inexhaustible supply of energy. The other major benefit is that it can be sourced locally, therefore allowing the Maritimes to establish a stable source of energy and forecast their energy costs. It is not the silver bullet energy solution, but it does have the benefit of being accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. In this respect, it is a great complement to other renewables, such as wind and solar, that can only provide intermittent energy because it is not possible to store solar or wind-generated energy.
The other major benefit is that biomass energy and sustainable forestry creates more jobs per million dollars of investment. A combination of all sources of energy that maximizes benefits to nature, people and communities is what we promote at ACFOR.
Q5 - It's really exciting to see ACFOR adopting new technologies and innovations in an industry that is generally perceived as very traditional. Can you tell us a bit about some of technologies/innovations you have adapted throughout your operations?
We have one of the world’s most advanced forestry machines, which is made in Finland (Ponsse). These machines are very efficient fuel wise and are equipped with GPS/GIS systems, onboard computers and remote monitoring. Using this type of machine allows us to be more efficient in our operations and keep costs lower. In fact, because of this innovation ACFOR can be as productive as those employing clear-cutting methods.
We have also adopted a vertically integrated business model, which means that we control all areas of our supply chain, from forestry management to woodchipping to leasing the biomass heating systems to our customers. Our boilers incorporate Austrian technology that is able to burn wood chips at 95% efficiency, which is very impressive.
Q6. Sustainable forestry management and biomass energy has the potential to benefit entire communities and the province. How is ACFOR collaborating with governments, institutions, communities and individuals to find common goals with respect to sustaining forests?
We collaborate with many partners. For example, our clients include universities and cities that own forests. The work we do is mutually beneficial to ACFOR and the community. The client is having their forests managed and therefore they are going to be healthier. We also share the profits from the revenue of the wood. ACFOR employs a lot of people in the community directly and indirectly, including truckers, mechanics, welders and local mills, so the money stays in the community.
We are very excited about adopting community investment models, such as the CEDB in PEI. Every year in PEI, over $100M in RRSP savings leaves the Island and very little comes back. We want to partner with Islanders and Maritimers to keep our investment dollars local and leave a better legacy for our children. We will be launching the CEDB very soon, so stayed tuned for updates on that front.
Q7. What is the kindest thing someone has done for you?
One time we had a family that really cared about their woodlot and they were looking for someone who cared as much for their wood as them. One day they brought a cake with trees on it to show how much they appreciated us taking care of their woodlot, it was a total surprise and an act of kindness that I will forever remember. And for us, that’s the goal - we want our clients to know that we will treat their forest as if it was our own.
For more information about ACFOR Energy, please visit their website at www.acfor.ca