Alberta is known for its beef -- or more specifically its beef marketing. If you haven't seen the original "I heart Alberta beef" bumper sticker you've definitely seen an homage.
But Alberta beef started for a reason, Alberta's grain farmers needed a way to diversify and add value to their product. Grain prices are notoriously volatile and producing a bumper crop didn't always guarantee a bumper profit.
Bern Kotelko grew up farming near Vegreville near Edmonton in Alberta. After finishing a degree at the University of Alberta he came back to the family farm and saw where the farming world was going. He and his brother started their own feedlot and started fattening up cows with grain. When you start having that many cows in one place the poop starts to pile up. Rather than see that as a problem Kotelko and his business partners saw it as an opportunity.
"Some people call it waste but we've gotten past that where we don't have to use the "W" word here. It all has value it just needs to be utilized in a different form," says Kotelko.
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That different form comes in the shape of an anaerobic digester. They take their cow manure and green bin organics from nearby communities and turn it into methane or biogas. That methane is burned in a 2.5-megawatt electricity generator, which produces enough electricity for 2,500 homes.
Their 36,000 head feedlot produces 500 tonnes of manure a day. They also accept 200 tonnes of organic waste from nearby municipalities. As a bonus they get a tipping fee for taking the organic waste and it has three times as much energy per shovelful than manure.
But the electric generators produced a new waste product, a ton of waste heat.
"So we did some research on fuel grade ethanol and it turns out it is a huge user of energy in the form of heat in the fermenters and the distillation process. And so our next step was to add an ethanol plant that produced fuel grade ethanol and used the surplus heat off the generators," says Kotelko.
All of this together is called Growing Power Hairy Hill. This tripod of interconnected businesses creates a virtuous cycle. The waste from one produces inputs for another. In fact the amount of stuff going on on-site can get a little dizzying. Thankfully we have Trever Nickel around to help navigate this maze. He's the general manager of Himark Biogas, a company that designs and licenses the biogas technology in use at the plant.
He walked us through all the inputs and outputs.
- Feedlot: Produces beef and manure. Uses leftover wet distillers grains from ethanol plant to feed cattle;
- Anaerobic Digester and Generators: Produces biogas, electricity, heat and fertilizer. Uses manure as a feedstock as well as municipal organic waste;
- Ethanol Plant: Produces ethanol and wet distillers grains. Uses waste heat from the generators.
"They all work together," says Nickel. "That's why we call it an integrated bio-refinery. But it's the digester acting as a micro-utility that unleashes the power of the integration." A graphic from their website shows how it all works.
Unfortunately, even with Alberta's giant cattle herd of 4.99 million animals there is only one other anaerobic digester in the province. Alberta's two ethanol plants produce only 80 million litres of ethanol, a fraction of the 265 million litres required by Alberta's mandated use of fuel-grade ethanol. This is ironic for an energy-focused province with such a surplus of grain.
Investors and banks don't know what to make of these projects and without clear signals from government that these types of projects are wanted they haven't taken off. By offering a modest feed-in-tariff to producers Germany has built 5,000 digestors. With a change in Alberta's carbon pricing scheme or simply a change that recognizes the value that these facilities produce Nickel sees a huge opportunity for biogas in this province.
All it would take, says Nickel, is raising Alberta's very modest carbon fee to $35 or more per tonne and we could rapidly build 10-20 more biomass/ethanol facilities the same size as theirs. He also sees room for more than a hundred of the smaller scale 0.5 to 1-megawatt generators.
"That would take so much of our waste right off the map, produce renewable energy and clean up the environment to boot," says Nickel.
Of course he's in the business of selling the technology behind these biogas generators but with the amount of cattle Alberta has the opportunity for farm diversification and energy production is considerable.
Bern Kotelko invokes the sentiments of his grandfather on the future. "I think we're going back to where our grandfather taught us on how to be sustainable and think of the future how are we going to do that for not just tens of years ahead but thousands of years ahead. We'll always have biomass where we have civilization and if we utilize our biomass properly we'll be able to self sufficient in food and energy at the same time."