Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Elmira’s powered by garbage

Elmira’s electricity is coming from 70,000 tonnes of garbage a year run through a state-of-the-art biodigester built by a team of local investors.

There’s enough electricity to power all the homes, offices and retail businesses, but not quite enough to supply several of the town’s biggest industries.

There’s also an equal amount of energy generated as heat and so far that’s just blowing out of a stack, but it could someday heat greenhouses or perhaps dry skim milk or fruits and vegetables.

Most of the garbage comes from food processing companies, but significant volume also comes from the green bin program for Peel Region and fats, oils and greases from restaurants and cafeterias.

It’s the only plant that has developed technology to take off wrappers, such as plastic and cardboard, to extract the food ingredients.
Paul Taylor, left, and Donald J. (Buck) Ross at Bio-En Inc., ElmiraAdd caption

That was the mechanical ingenuity of Earl Brubacher, who has spent a career working for Martin-family businesses in and around Elmira, and Derek Martin, who handles the computer end of things.
After the garbage passes through the biodigester, there’s valuable fertilizer in liquid form that tests .4  per cent nitrogen, .2 phosphorous and .08 potash, which is a relatively balanced blend that can be applied to field crops.

Paul Taylor, manager of New Business Development, says it has done particularly well on hay and pasture fields, but most is taken by cash-crop farmers.

The Elmira plant generates 2.85 megawatts of electricity per hour, and after the launch in March, 2014, is now running at capacity.

It’s a continuous process, fully automated, running day and night, all week long. The only employees at the plant are handling truck traffic, bringing feedstock in, shipping fertilizer out in tractor-trailer tanker units.

It would have been up and running years earlier, but neighbours objected because they feared there would be obnoxious odours and too much truck traffic.

In practice, the plant was up and running for seven weeks when one of the leading opponents asked when the plant would open. He hadn’t noticed any odours or increased truck traffic.

The Elmira plant is the culmination of a dream by the late George Piller, a chicken farmer, former owner of Piller’s Meats and Delicatessens Ltd. of Waterloo, and a partner in a number of ventures by a team of Elmira businessmen, led by the late Donnie Martin of Martin Feed Mills and Martin Pet Foods.

Piller, who was born in Austria, wanted to launch a biodigester here similar to ones he had seen operating in Austria. He took friends to see the plants and persuaded them to invest.

Chief among the investors is Donnie Martin’s son, Chuck, and Derek, the computer whiz, is his grandson. Another grandson, Chris, also works at the business.

Piller’s son, Tony, is a director. Others on the original team of investors are Donald J. (Buck) Ross, who farms near Arthur, Mahlon Frey and the late Harold Wideman.

They hold rights to market the Agrinz Technologies biodigesters and have designed and built them at Leamington, Hanover, Nicaragua and are in the planning stages for more, including one in India.

The one at Leamington generates 3.2 megawatts per hour and the one at Hanover, on a beef farm, generates .75 megawatts.

The Leamington biodigester, owned by Seacliff Energy also heats a large greenhouse complex that grows organic tomatoes.

The electricity is sold to the Independent Electricity Systems Operator under the province’s somewhat controversial FIT program, which also signed 20-year contracts to kick-start the solar and wind power electricity generators.

There are about a dozen biodigesters operating in Ontario now, but only four the size of the Bio-En Power Inc. projects.

To avoid ruinous competition for feedstock, they now buy through Cornerstone Renewables which has two employees handling procurement.

Among the things they have taken are foods condemned by health units and surplus skim milk.
The process includes heating the inputs to 50 degrees Celsius, which pasteurizes the feedstock. That, in turn, enabled the company to gain certification from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for its fertilizer.

It is also certified by the Ontario Ministry of Environment as a waste handler and, of course, as an electricity supplier.

“It’s a win-win-win situation for everybody,” says Ross, who is keenly interested in projects that improve the environment.

He figures Ontario's farmers, researchers and entrepreneurs could develop technologies that will be marketable around the globe.

And he says the provincial and federal governments would be better advised to invest in these kinds of projects than in others aimed at curbing greenhouse gases.

He takes a large volume of the Elmira plant’s distillates to store in what once was a liquid manure holding tank, applying it to his 700 acres of crops when the timing is appropriate.

The plant at Elmira took 11 years from proposal to completion. Today, with experience behind the successful launch of commercial-scale biodigesters, they can be up and running in less than two years, says Taylor.