Himark bioGas Inc

Prairie `agri-preneurs` battle megafarm waste

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Courtesy of Himark bioGas Inc

Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of EnCana Corp.

The revolting image of foaming green sludge washed up on a Lake Winnipeg beach in the Aug. 24 edition of Maclean's is part of, as the accompanying article states: 'a putrid green mat, twice the size of PEI, and clearly visible from space ... The culprit isn't oil spills, toxic waste or even pesticides, but nutrient overloading from fertilizers, human and animal waste.' The world's tenth-largest lake may be Canada's sickest, but this 'eutrophication' problem is occurring across the country, including Ontario's Lake Simcoe, Alberta's Lac La Biche, Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley lakes and parts of the St. Lawrence River. South of the border, agricultural nutrients washing into the Mississippi River system have spawned an enormous oxygen-deficient dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The problem is many-fold, from fertilizer runoff to municipal sewage disposal, but much of the evidence points to meat and dairy animals as the biggest contributors. In Manitoba alone, the excrement from over eight million hogs, equivalent to the waste from 30 million humans, is spread annually into the watershed. Alberta's eight million hogs and cattle produce the same result. Substantial discharges also take place in other provinces including B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

As if watershed pollution weren't enough, anyone living downwind of the huge crowded feedlots and pens where cattle and hogs spend most of their lives knows all too well the noxious odours produced when untreated excrement is spread onto forage and grain fields. As a farm kid who later became an oil and gas company CEO, it never ceased to amaze me that people were prepared to tolerate the destructive impacts of raw animal waste, while protesting mightily at even the slightest whiff or drop of hydrocarbon.

But a broad coalition of forces is taking aim at agricultural pollution with a key focus on mega-meat producing operations. One part of the coalition is focused on local air and ground water pollution, such as that associated with Ontario's Walkerton tragedy. Another is focused on the deadly impact to streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Others worry about the 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates come from livestock, a figure greater than for all auto, rail and air transportation.

While the vast majority of intensive livestock production operators hope the critics will go away or focus on other industries, there are those who understand that the status quo is no longer a viable option. Fortunately, there are forward thinking Canadian 'agri-preneurs' who are turning this growing public opinion crisis into an opportunity.

The sustainable future of livestock production is emerging from the Prairies near the town of Vegreville in central Alberta. Here, successful farm boys turned international entrepreneurs, Evan and Shane Chrapko have teamed up with two other brothers, feedlot owners Mike and Bert Kotelko, in a project that is turning manure into power and biofertilizer, with fuel ethanol soon to be added. Their company, Highmark Renewables, is already turning out enough electricity to power 700 homes along with large volumes of environmentally safe fertilizer. The patented process starts with 'anaerobic digesters,' large tanks where micro-organisms break down the manure into methane, the main component of natural gas. This 'biogas' is then burned to generate power. The organic residue is 'biofertilizer,' a pathogen and weed-free soil-building product suitable for agricultural as well as lawn and garden use.

But the Chrapko and Kotelko men have a much larger vision, Canada's first integrated bio-refinery. Their project will burn the biogas to generate the steam and electricity that will then be used to convert high-starch feed wheat into fuel ethanol with the nutritious residue (known as 'distiller's grains') recycled to cattle at the nearby feedlot. Conventional fuel ethanol plants are notoriously inefficient, using almost as much hydrocarbon energy as they produce. Because Highmark's integrated process will be fuelled by organic waste, and since the distillers grains don't require drying due to the proximity of the feedlot, the plant will also be Canada's first ethanol producer with a significantly positive energy balance.

Ethanol plants have also been criticized for diverting grain 'from food to fuel.' Since Highmark's plant will produce ethanol from the low-grade grain that was previously fed directly to the cattle, the residue of which is then recycled back to the feedlot as distillers grains, there is no additional demand on cropland.

In the words of Evan Chrapko, 'now it's a food-and-fuel process, not food versus fuel.'

The company's literature refers to a 'virtuous loop' starting with untreated organic waste from 30,000 cattle (equivalent to 180,000 humans) that would otherwise have been spread onto the countryside, producing the power and steam needed to convert feed-grain to fuel, with a byproduct of environmentally friendly fertilizer. When completed, the bio-refinery will annually turn 120,000 tonnes of feedlot manure and 110,000 tonnes of feed wheat into 40 million litres of fuel ethanol and 10,000 tonnes of biofertilizer.

It won't come cheap. The completed plant is expected to cost about $100-million, and there are several risks, including the price of ethanol, which varies with the cost of gasoline and government policies for ethanol blending. The economics also require the plant to earn credits under Alberta's greenhouse gas reduction plan.

Highmark's vision goes well beyond this pioneering project. It plans six other plants across the Prairies. The status quo is no longer an option. Innovation, scientific advancement, vision and risk-taking ... more than grass and grain grow from Prairie roots.

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