|With his brother Shane, Evan Chrapko laid the foundation of a green energy megaproject — in the heart of oil country.|
In Green Oil, the Alberta journalist and consultant argues that sustainable development of the oil sands can play a key role in providing resources for the transition from a high-carbon economy to a clean-energy future. An excerpt:
With his slow smile, trademark black cowboy hat and soft-spoken manner, Evan Chrapko is very much a modern rural Albertan. He's completely at home in the muck and mire of a farm, but equally at ease in a boardroom or at a black-tie-and-champagne reception. Evan and his brother, Shane, part of a family that grew up on an organic farm in eastern Alberta, are also a face of the Green Future.
Evan left the farm to take a commerce degree at the University of Alberta, then a law degree from Columbia University in New York. Along the way, he became a chartered accountant. Then the brothers got into the first generation of the tech boom, and got out just in time. They sold their dot-com firm, DocSpace, for $568 million (U.S.) back in 1999, weeks before the first tech bubble burst.
They turned their personal wealth and considerable talents to home turf, at a time when there seemed to be little future for the traditional family farm that built so much of the wealth of western Canada. They set out to make electricity from s--- – cattle manure, to be precise – and succeeded. Having grown up next door to a feedlot owned by their friends and neighbours, the Kotelko family, they partnered with brothers Bern and Mike Kotelko to lay the foundation of a green energy megaproject – in the heart of oil country.
The Chrapkos and Kotelkos trace their ancestry to the steppes of eastern Europe, part of the great diasporas that came to Canada at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
Just as their ancestors started anew in the rich black earth of the Canadian Prairies, so did these brothers set out to find new value from what was once considered waste.
And in a story that is so typical of the richness and diversity of Alberta, they took the research of a distinguished Chinese-born scientist and turned it into reality. Xiaomei Li's work at the Alberta Research Council's research station in the rural community of Vegreville dealt with the problem of spreading manure on soil as a natural fertilizer. There was too much of it, and the phosphorous content of the excrement was harming the soil. Dr. Li and her fellow researchers developed the Integrated Manure Utilisation System (IMUS), building the capacity to separate and use various components from manure and other by-products from the farm. This is an apt example of how the public sector can initiate research that will attract private sector investment and development to take it to the commercial scale, and find wider application and profitability in the marketplace.
Because of Canada's particular history of migration, a Sino-Ukrainian collaboration that might never have been took root in eastern Alberta. The Chrapko-Kotelko enterprise, Highmark Renewables, first persuaded Dr. Li to become the firm's Chief Science Officer, and then purchased the IMUS technology from the Alberta Research Council in August 2009. This is very much a result of the Chrapko brothers' ability to spot the "next big thing," as they did in the dot-com world. "We were the only industrial partner that ever bucked up dollars, time, energy, blood, sweat and tears to Dr. Li's research," Chrapko told me. Now, Dr. Li and her team are working to adapt the IMUS technology for use on liquid manure, food processing waste and even municipal waste.
Highmark believes its technology can be applied to build integrated electricity and ethanol plants wherever manure exists in abundance. That's just about everywhere with livestock. Cattle excrete six times as much waste as humans. Pig manure, especially pungent, lends itself well to biogas. And, of course, it applies to cities: human waste, especially the solid sludge from sewage, is a prime electricity source using the Highmark technique. Moreover, it makes even more sense to hook it up to an ethanol plant.
How does Highmark do it? They start with a proprietary, patented technology that can turn nearly any kind of organic waste into "bioGas," a 100-per-cent renewable substitute for natural gas. The Highmark technology is unique in its ability to process tough-to-handle wastes (such as feedlot manure, municipal solid waste, and industrial food processing waste) in a system that not only yields renewable energy, but also a renewable bio-based fertilizer. The system is designed so that there is no waste at the end of the process, just a cleaner, greener, piece of the planet.
This is a renewable gas because it is based on a zero-waste economy when it comes to any form of biomass and excreta. Indeed, Dr. Li's breakthrough system can separate solids and liquids sufficiently to make water contained in manure reusable. This is where a food-to-energy-to-waste-to-energy cycle begins.
Crops grown for cattle feed become the first feedstock. Highmark strips the carbohydrate out of the cattle feed and uses it to make ethanol. The feed residue still has enough rich nutrients to fatten the livestock. Then whatever the cattle excrete goes into the biogas digester.
The biogas is burned to produce electricity. The fibre that's left over can be turned into fertilizer or it can be used in reclaiming land disturbed by oil sands activity.
"Cattle don't use starch, but that's the only element needed for ethanol," observes Chrapko. "So it's a triple win: cattle, biogas, green fuel." This basket of technologies producing ethanol "has a life-cycle carbon footprint that's smaller than the much-touted (and still in the `eagerly anticipated' category) cellulosic ethanol," he notes.
Here's the alchemy: previously, the Kotelkos would have grown cattle feed for their livestock then used the manure to fertilize the fields to grow the feed. Now they continue the same process – but produce fertilizer, electricity and ethanol at the same time. This sort of value-added and sustainable use of a land and resource base has profound implications for the viability of the planet.
Moreover, just as the oil sands make Alberta a hydrocarbon superpower, Alberta's animal husbandry makes it a manure superpower. As toxic tailings lakes are to oil sands, manure is to feedlots: not only can manure be easily cleaned up, as Highmark demonstrates, it can yield significant commercial value.
"Alberta has a rich endowment of renewable energy resources that will play an increasingly important role in our energy future," notes the government of Alberta's 2008 Provincial Energy Strategy. "Already Alberta has almost three times the national average of electricity generation capacity from wind power. Bio-fuels can be produced from agricultural products such as grains and canola and cellulose from plant fibre and switch grass, and forestry waste products ..."
As the government notes, "the key question for Alberta, in a world that is going to be counting on energy from all sources, is how we can begin to produce and consume fossil fuels in a far cleaner way."