On a massive cattle feedlot located outside the town of Vegreville, Alta., the pungent odour of cow manure is masked by the sweet smell of the province’s energy future.
Turning cattle dung — “brown gold,” as some call it — into green power and other valuable byproducts is a made-in-Alberta energy solution that is not only sustainable and energy efficient, but also cost effective.
That’s according to Grow-Gen Energy and Atco Midstream, who are partners in what they are calling Canada’s first integrated biorefinery, designed to convert organic waste and feed wheat into fuel ethanol, biofertilizers and green electricity. Their approximately $120-million project will expand an existing biogas-to-electricity plant, developed by the Kotelko family near Vegreville, east of Edmonton, that uses cattle manure to generate biogas and green electricity.
The resulting green energy will be used to fuel a new ethanol production system. The ethanol will be derived from locally grown high-starch wheat, as opposed to high-protein wheat used for human food products.
Once the expansion is complete, the biorefinery will generate 40 million litres of fuel ethanol, 10,000 tonnes of premium biofertilizer and 2.5 megawatts of green electricity each year. It will also annually create more than 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions offset credits.
“What’s unique is that it’s the merging of the agricultural industry with the energy industry,” says Kevin Cumming, president of Atco Midstream. “It’s a good balance throughout the whole plant, and you gain quite a bit of energy in terms of the process. You gain more energy than you consume.”
Atco Midstream will operate the biorefinery and be a part owner in the project. Grow-Gen Energy of Hairy Hill, Alta. — part of the 4BEL group of companies that develops and helps finance utility-scale, clean energy projects worldwide — is the other major owner, along with several investors including a farmer-owned grain procurement partner, Providence Grain Group of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
The ethanol grain plant will operate on the energy produced from cattle manure, “so we are producing a low-carbon footprint ethanol,” explains Bern Kotelko, president of Highland Feeders, chairman of Highmark Renewables and a director with BECII (Biomass to Energy for Canada Integration Initiative), a new Edmonton-based not-for-profit organization that will promote research on converting biomass to energy.
The biorefinery project (also called the Growing Power Hairy Hill project) will process raw biomass into valuable products in a highly integrated, energy-efficient, cost-effective process that is virtually waste-free, Kotelko says. A bio-digester produces gas that goes into a cogeneration unit and produces steam and electricity to be used within the ethanol plant. The residual wet, distilled grains that remain after the ethanol is made will be fed to the cattle at Highland Feeders’ nearby feedlot, so the grain is used multiple times. Biofertilizer, a byproduct of the biogas production, will be sold to local farmers and oil and gas drilling companies for soil enhancement and remediation.
The biorefinery removes carbon from the manure in the form of methane, and the nutrients remaining in the manure are spread on a field and used to grow more crops. “This allows us to use our manure multiple times. The integration is important, because what it allows agriculture to do is to help offset some of the high production costs of growing food,” Kotelko explains. In order to keep producing food at what consumers want to pay for it, “if we have the opportunity to receive some of our revenue back in the form of selling energy and receiving carbon credits for it, it will help us to feed the world at an economical cost.”
This process could be used in other locations in Alberta, Canada and around the world, Cumming says, noting Alberta’s renewable fuel standard (RFS) requires that renewable products be blended into commercial fuels starting in the spring of 2011: five per cent ethanol content in gasoline and two per cent renewable content in diesel. “It’s a great fit in that we are taking a waste product and creating energy from it, and creating a renewable fuel on top of it. It’s a great project. We are really pleased with how it’s coming along.”
Grow-Gen is not alone in looking to turn bio-waste into high-value products. Another Alberta company, Biosphere Technologies, is planning to build an international commercial demonstration and research biorefinery in Lacombe by transforming animal and plant waste into sterile, organic nutrients for biogas and fertilizer production.
“We now have an alternative that will be beneficial for human and animal health, beneficial for the environment and will bring economic value to material that until now has been a cost to society,” says Biosphere Technologies’ president and chief executive officer, Erick Schmidt, the inventor of Biosphere’s BioRefinex thermal hydrolysis process.
The process, which breaks down organic material using high-temperature saturated steam and pressure, is an environmental technology that destroys all infectious and disease agents in organic waste, making the material “absolutely safe,” says Schmidt, who is based in Ponoka, Alta.
Biosphere’s thermal hydrolysis process has been approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as an alternative technology to incineration. The technology has recently been adopted by the World Organization for Animal Health (176 member countries) as a process that will destroy all infectious disease agents. “The cycle is quite fast — it’s a two-hour process to transform the material into a molasses-like liquid,” Schmidt says.
The material that comes out of this process is a nutrient, which can be used as a soil fertilizer, or as a feed nutrient in anaerobic digesters to create bio-ethanol, along with other feedstocks.
“The whole objective and potential of this technology is to take all of the organic residues and wastes in communities, first of all to get rid of the diseases, and then to use [the organic wastes] as a feedstock or nutrient for the production of green energy through anaerobic digestion.” The technology solves an environmental problem, Schmidt explains, by turning organic waste into green energy. When organic waste is landfilled, he notes, it will emit methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. “So by capturing the methane and turning it into renewable energy, you are mitigating greenhouse gas production and creating green energy. Hopefully, this will make a big contribution to nutrient recycling and will be beneficial to the biosphere.”
Biosphere Technologies is currently negotiating funding from the public and private sectors to build its $35-million biorefinery, which it plans to have operational by spring 2012.
The southernmost part of the province is also seeing a flurry of new activity in the area of alternative energy production, championed by the Southern Alberta Alternative Energy Partnership (SAAEP). Launched in 2006, SAAEP is a partnership of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance and Economic Development Lethbridge, and represents 39 municipalities in southwest and south-central Alberta. SAAEP wants the region to become a global leader in alternative energy production and manufacturing. And it is already seeing results, with several biofuel companies planning to start up in southwest and south-central Alberta in the near future. Here are some of them:
- Construction is nearly complete on Kyoto Fuels’ $24-million biodiesel facility, located just south of Lethbridge. One of the largest biodiesel plants in Canada, with production capacity of 66 million litres, the facility will focus on producing quality biodiesel through environmentally responsible practices. As a byproduct, the facility will also produce glycerin at a minimum purity of 90 per cent. The company plans to sell this waste stream to a variety of markets, including the cosmetics and bio-plastics industries.
- ECB Enviro North America and StormFisher Biogas have partnered to build a 3.2-megawatt biogas cogeneration facility in Lethbridge. Lethbridge Biogas will be a full-scale biogas cogeneration project fuelled by agricultural manure and food processing wastes. Once operational, the $25-million plant is expected to offset the carbon dioxide equivalent of more than 17,000 tonnes per year, and create enough energy to power more than 3,000 homes. The facility will also produce organic fertilizer.
- BFuel Canada plans to build an integrated oilseed crusher and biodiesel refinery 32 kilometres east of Lethbridge along Highway 3. The $35-million facility is expected to create approximately 30 to 35 on-site jobs, and produce 50 million litres of biodiesel annually.
These projects will allow the region to diversify its economy and build on its natural strengths and resources, according to Kris Hodgson, senior manager of business development at Economic Development Lethbridge. “I think it will provide great economic opportunity, not only for the employees who work in these facilities, but also for the associated value and supply chain that come with these plants,” he says.
Key Points To Ponder
- Grow-Gen Energy and Atco Midstream will develop Canada’s first integrated biorefinery. The refinery will use organic wastes and high-starch wheat to create green electricity, biofertilizer and fuel ethanol.
- The project involves the expansion of an existing biogas-to-electricity facility east of Edmonton, near Vegreville.
- One cow produces six times the waste of one human (1,200 kilograms per animal per year), and there are close to six million cattle in confined feeding operations across the province.