By Ellen Cools
When a world-wide pandemic was declared just over a year ago, there was rampant speculation about how it would impact the global economy. Now, as vaccinations ramp up, the focus is shifting to economic recovery.
Appropriately, the theme of the Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA)’s 2021 convention, which took place online on February 24, was sustaining economic recovery.
Ian Dunn, interim president and CEO of OFIA, kicked off the four-hour long conference by announcing $54 million from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for the public access roads fund. He then outlined how forestry is well-positioned to lay the foundations for economic recovery in Ontario.
“Our sector is expanding, investing and hiring to meet increasing demand for forest products and the emerging bioeconomy,” Dunn said. “Our association is focused on making Ontario a globally competitive jurisdiction.”
While Ontario’s forest industry has fared extremely well through the pandemic, largely thanks to high lumber prices and demand, there are underlying issues that need to be addressed in order to create a sustained economic recovery.
Speakers at the conference touched upon a few of those challenges, including the lack of markets for low-grade fibre, the need to increase overall fibre utilization and the labour shortage. They also discussed the work that is being done to address these issues and opportunities the sector should capitalize on, such as further developing the circular bioeconomy.
Increasing fibre utilization
Many of the challenges facing Ontario’s forest industry are addressed in the province’s new forest sector strategy, which was released in August last year. Sean Maguire, assistant deputy minister, forest industry division, for the Government of Ontario, went into more detail about the strategy.
The goal of the strategy, Maguire said, is to enhance the recognition of Ontario’s sustainable forest management practices and remove barriers to growth. According to Maguire, the key to growing and sustaining the industry is improving wood supply utilization.
“We are tracking to use less than 60 per cent of the wood supply available for harvest this year,” he said. “It’s in our mutual best interest to see Ontario use all of its allowable annual harvest each year.”
But, it is difficult to improve wood supply utilization when the market for low-grade wood is small or non-existent, as this renders many harvest areas economically unviable.
The biggest consumer of low-grade wood – the pulp and paper sector – has fallen on hard times, Maguire said. In 2005, there were 16 pulp and paper mills in Ontario using 18.1 million cubic metres of wood per year. In 2021, there are just six mills using 8.2 million cubic metres of wood annually.
However, pulp and paper mills still consume 55 per cent of the province’s low-grade fibre today and support 41 per cent of employment in Ontario’s forest sector.
Consequently, “as part of the strategy, we should be challenging ourselves to find and support the increased use of low-grade fibre in existing pulp and paper facilities,” Maguire said.
But, at least two million cubic metres of low-grade SPF is available for the biomass industry that the pulp and paper sector cannot use, he said. So, the province needs to find viable alternatives that can support the growth of Ontario’s forest sector.
This is where the forest biomass action plan comes in. The plan, which will be released in the coming months, will identify current and future opportunities by studying research potential and developing roadmaps, and will explore emerging trends for biomass that will help the government identify future markets, Maguire explained.
To further increase the forest products industry’s competitiveness, Ontario sawmills also need to increase their harvesting levels.
According to Maguire, sawmills account for 62 per cent of the provincial harvest, while OSB mills account for 12 per cent. This means 74 per cent of the harvest is dependent on North American housing starts and wood fibre utilization follows this pattern.
“In the big picture, markets will dictate utilization, but there are lots of ways to increase utilization for the pole market and new markets,” Maguire said.
“The goal is not to take critical supply from mills when they’re at their low-end in the economic cycle; it’s to identify wood they aren’t going to use and find new ways to use it,” he elaborated.
To do so, Maguire wants to review the system for unit management and wood supply agreement monitoring, to determine how well it has worked and how it can improve.
To address these fundamental issues, along with others, the Ontario government will be following a myriad of measures, Maguire said. As challenges change, it’s critical that industry and government maintains dialogue. He encouraged attendees to get in touch with the provincial government and to nurture relationships across the sector.
Test driving a forestry career
One of the other challenges facing Ontario’s forest industry is the labour shortage. Addressing this issue will be critical for sustaining economic recovery in the future, given that one-third of the forest sector is set to retire by 2030.
PLT Canada is working to bridge the labour gap through a new certification program. Jessica Kaknevicius, vice-president of education for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and PLT Canada, and Tara Topping, former manager of career education with PLT Canada, spoke about this project at the conference.
While PLT Canada’s Green Jobs program has placed 3,500 youth in green jobs, the challenge is connecting with more students earlier on, particularly those who have never considered a career in forestry, Kaknevicius said.
The answer to this problem may be experiential learning.
Teachers in Ontario are being asked to give students more real-world experience to increase their employable skills, which means they are looking to employers to provide those opportunities, Topping said.
As part of this initiative, in 2006, the Ontario government launched Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM). In a SHSM program, students go through a series of courses (including two co-op components), complete seven sector-based certifications, and participate in at least one sector-partnered experience.
“It’s an opportunity to test drive a career,” Topping said. “For students, it can be a spark, and for employers, it can help address shortages of workers.”
But, so far, only three out of 2,234 SHSM programs in Ontario are forestry-focused.
“Without sector professionals driving that content or putting pressure on school systems, the skills development that is needed isn’t necessarily being met,” Topping said.
To address this issue, PLT Canada is pursuing a SHSM certification program called Diverse Perspectives in Sustainable Natural Resource Management. Students are asked to create a forest management plan and justify their decisions, and are given a scorecard of how their decisions impact the forest.
Through this program, “students who don’t have a background in forestry can gain perspective, engage with staff virtually through Zoom panel discussions, hear from stakeholders in Ear Falls, Ont., talk to those who make the on-the-ground decisions, explore the steps of forest management through the Ontario MNRF, and do hands-on decision making,” Kaknevicius explained.
The goal is to get students who might not have considered forestry as a potential career a way to get involved, and give forestry employers the opportunity to engage with those students.
Kaknevicius and Topping called on OFIA members to get involved by helping to review students’ forest management plans and their rationales.
Embracing the circular bioeconomy
Speakers at the conference also touched upon the opportunities that the biomass industry presents. Remi Lalonde, CEO of Resolute Forest Products, shared how the company is embracing the circular bioeconomy, with its Thunder Bay, Ont., operations leading the way.
The company’s Thunder Bay operations involve woodlands operations, three sawmills, a pulp and paper mill, a wood pellet mill, and the TMP-biorefinery cogeneration station. The woodlands operations provide sawlogs to all three sawmills, as well as softwood and hardwood chips to the pulp and paper plant and biomass to the cogeneration plant.
“The cogeneration station is at the heart of the network because it uses waste from all four operations in the area, including bush debris from the woodlands operations,” Lalonde explained. “It produces green energy that we sell to the province under a power purchase agreement, generates heat needed to run our pulp and paper operations, and supplies resulting ash for use in farming.”
“The power is a complimentary product within our integrated business infrastructure in northwestern Ontario,” he added. “The interdependent infrastructure is significantly weakened without power generation and power generation is not feasible without this infrastructure.”
Resolute’s integrated operations also align with the company’s commitment to meeting climate change targets, Lalonde shared. The company produces 74 per cent of its energy needs from renewable resources, and one-third of that energy is produced internally.
“To put it in perspective, we generate enough power from renewable resources in Thunder Bay to support over two-thirds of the electricity demand of the entire city at any one time,” he said.
The company is also supporting education and research to generate economic growth and develop new products for new markets.
For example, the TMP-biorefinery uses technology developed in partnership with FPInnovations. The biorefinery produces lignin and sugars for use in the development of innovative bioproducts such as wood adhesives. This represents a new market for the forest sector as demand for making sugars from renewable materials rather than fossil fuels is increasing, Lalonde said.
“But, as exciting as those opportunities may be, this is very much a demonstration plant and we have a lot of work to do before we’re ready to have success on a commercial scale,” he said.
Addressing commercialization challenges
Commercialization was a key topic that Chris Walton, CEO of the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), discussed in his presentation. Canada is well-known for researching and developing great ideas, but the challenge is bringing those ideas to market in Canada, he said.
CRIBE is working to solve this challenge. Since 2017, the organization has been speaking with people who work in the value chain to understand why Canada is behind when it comes to commercialization of new bioproducts. Based on their discussions, they discovered the industry has not done well engaging with the value chain and customers.
But, to build out the value chain, Canada’s bioeconomy needs support mechanisms to overcome challenges to commercialization, such as funding. To tackle this problem, CRIBE launched Nextfor, an innovation network whose goal is to get products to market.
Nextfor focuses on three areas in particular: high-performance lignin-based products, forest innovation and biocomposites. Walton went into detail about the work that Nextfor has done in each of these three areas.
In 2018, Nextfor held workshops to brainstorm ideas for lignin-based products that could be brought to market within three years. They mapped out opportunities for commercialization in three areas – adhesives and resins, polymer fine chemicals, and thermoplastics and composites.
Building on this work, in 2020, the organization launched the High-Performance Lignin Challenge, offering $500,000 in funding to companies who were ready to commercialize products in these three areas.
Eight consortiums, representing over 30 companies, sent in proposals wanting to invest in the commercialization of lignin products in Ontario, Walton shared. Nextfor is moving forward with two of the eight projects, with over $2 million worth of investments in seed funding for the next-generation lignin-based products.
Walton also shared a few projects that Nextfor has been working on in the forest innovation area, including working with the Nawiinginokiima Forest Management Corporation to support their pilot project trialing the use of autonomous logging trucks in northern Ontario. Nextfor has also created a public geo-spatial economic development tool, called the Innovation Hub, which provides investment attraction tools for companies interested in using woody biomass.
“It uses the best available public data about where the wood is, what the wood would cost, etc., as an economic fibre supply modelling tool,” Walton explained. “It helps to answer the questions, ‘What is the opportunity in Ontario? Where is the opportunity wood? How much will it cost to access it?’”
Over the next three years, Nextfor will be investing $3.5 million to work on additional commercialization areas in the three key areas, conduct regional case studies and opportunity mapping, and enhance the Innovation Hub, Walton shared. The funding will come from industry and the Ontario and federal governments.
They will also launch the Biocomposites Innovation Forum in the spring to engage the biocomposites industry to better understand opportunities for bio-based products in the bioplastics industry and stimulate commercialization, he said.
“We will collaborate with innovation forums, align with the Ontario forest sector strategy, support the deployment of first-of-its-kind technology, and identify opportunities for Ontario with a roadmap out to 2030 to meet the 30 million cubic metres by 2030 goal,” Walton concluded.
Missed OFIA’s 78th annual meeting? You can watch a recording of the event here.