Putting the potential of Alberta’s biomass on the map

Cheryl Croucher

When developing natural resources, one of the first things you want to look at is a map that shows deposits of oil or gold.

The same goes for developing Alberta’s bio-resources. As an investor or entrepreneur, where will you find plentiful supplies of straw, wood fibre or sludge to support your green business venture?

The answers are provided by BRIMS, an acronym for Bio-Resource Information Management System. This new online computer application was developed by Alberta Innovates and Silvacom. Other partners include Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute and Agriculture Financial Services Corp., which provided data.

BRIMS maps biomass pools across the province. This includes agriculture and forest residuals, as well as municipal waste.

Andrew Vandenbroeck is a manager of energy and environment at Silvacom, an Edmonton-based company that provides consulting and software solutions to help improve land management. Vandenbroeck has been involved in the development of BRIMS since its inception. His role on the data side was to build a comprehensive framework to capture the potential bio-resource pools in the province, and then develop a process to source the best available information.

BRIMS was 10 years in the making. “It took a significant amount of time to go through the research, construct inventories from those that are built for other purposes like the forest industry, and find mechanisms to convert that into a biomass estimate for the province,” says Vandenbroeck.

The website at BRIMS.ca is available to both industry and the public. It has some interesting features, such as the ability to focus on a particular region. Clicking on the screen brings up a map of Alberta. Then you can refine and filter the information according to your needs.

Vandenbroeck describes how the online mapping tool works:

“The map not only allows you to map the resource potential, but also to interactively select that resource for a given region. For example, if you wanted to look at how much biomass is in your county as an economic development opportunity, if you go and select that county, then you’ll have a report populate on the right. It gives you a detailed breakdown of all the bio-resource potential there.”

BRIMS is designed to appeal to a variety of users. “It could be local businesses within the province who are looking for additional feedstocks to support the existing bio-industry in the province,” says Vandenbroeck.

“It could also be for people outside the province looking for investment opportunities to come and grow their business. Or it could be used from a research perspective to understand ecosystem services tradeoffs with bio-resources on the landscape.”

Vandenbroeck defines ecosystem services as the benefits nature provides to people.

And yes, these have been delineated, measured, mapped and given an economic price tag, as Steve Price explains. He’s the executive director of bio-industrial services with Alberta Innovates.

“From my perspective when we talk about ecosystem services, we’re looking at the broader suite of resource values,” says Price. “We’re not just looking at the land base and the fibre that can come off. We’re looking at water. We’re looking at wildlife populations. We’re looking at the aesthetics and the recreational opportunities that exist. We’re giving consideration to the carbon that can be sequestered.

“So BRIMS, while we started it with a focus on biomass, we’ve expanded that focus.”

The point, he continues, is to ensure that as Alberta looks for more opportunities for biomass extraction in any particular region, it does so without having significant negative impacts on water resources, plants and animals.

This is why the work of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute has been incorporated into the BRIMS database. The institute continuously surveys the province on a grid system to produce an inventory of Alberta’s biodiversity that determines its overall integrity and sustainability.

Price calls BRIMS a dynamic system that can expand to accommodate the addition of thematic layers. “Medical information added to the BRIMS database would allow us to give consideration to the potential impacts of industrial development in different parts of the province, looking at the incidence of disease.”

He even sees BRIMS growing its database to provide a national scope.

“As we move into greater diversification of the economy, there’s much greater interest in what in the past would have been considered waste,” sums up Price. “So BRIMS is important because it helps us identify what’s available as feedstock for the new bio-industries that are looking at Alberta and wanting to set up here.”

Veteran broadcast and online journalist Cheryl Croucher produces InnovationAnthology.com which can be heard online and on CKUA Radio. This is the fourth in a 10-part series sponsored by Alberta Innovates.

Cheryl Croucher is a Troy Media contributor.

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