BC Hydro is calling on yet another alt-energy sector to add its weight to the B.C. power grid with a recent call for bioenergy.

It’s a good signal for the B.C. tech companies coaxing megawatts from wood chips and other organic waste, but it’s a fairly minor boost for a sector already doing big things outside the country.

For example, Nexterra Energy Corp. president and CEO Jonathan Rhone says he’s happy about BC Hydro’s interest, but he’s far more excited about Nexterra’s latest partner: U.S. auto parts and building giant Johnson Controls Inc.

Many wood, pulp and paper mills in B.C. are already using wood waste to generate electricity for their plants, and BC Hydro currently buys 700 gigawatt-hours of electricity from independent bioenergy projects. The first phase of the call for power, announced in February, is meant to drum up another 1,000 gigawatt-hours.

Rhone says Nexterra will be working with Alberta’s Pristine Power Inc. to pitch 10 to 15 small-scale bioenergy facilities in B.C. through the call for power, each one a $30-million to $40-million project. That’s dwarfed by Johnson Controls’ plan to replace the power and heating systems in colleges across the U.S. with Nexterra-designed biomass gasifiers.

The first such system has been up and running at the University of South Carolina since December, Rhone says. The $21-million bioenergy system saves the university between $2 million and $3 million a year on energy costs, while reducing its fossil-fuel purchases by about 85 per cent. Nexterra and Johnson Controls have identified 700 colleges as likely candidates for similar projects, as well as hundreds of other state and federal facilities.

“It’s a very exciting point in time, and I think we’re really just getting started,” Rhone says.

Nexterra’s gasification technology works by converting organic waste, largely the wood leftovers of various forestry industries, into a synthetic gas through a low-oxygen burning process. This gas can replace natural gas as fuel to produce heat and energy. It’s considered a low-carbon source of energy because the biomass removes carbon from the atmosphere before it’s used as a fuel.

On the other side of the industry, B.C. wood-chip producers are also giving BC Hydro thumbs-up for its efforts in the sector. However John Swaan, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, explains that the vast majority of member companies’ product goes to advanced bioenergy projects in Europe, which demand far more renewable fuel than B.C. is ever likely to need.