|At Big Rock Brewery, spent grain is used as cattle feed. Pictured here is brewmaster Paul Gautreau |
Alberta may not always get an A-grade when it comes to the environment, but in some areas the province’s enterprises are on the leading edge. In industries from agriculture to forestry to beer, Alberta businesses are taking their own initiative to become closed-loop producers – that is, figuring out where waste happens and finding new uses for it.
Even the kind of waste that gets stuck on your boots: yep, we’re talking about grade-A Alberta cow poop. Powered by nearly 100-per-cent renewable energy made from feedlot cattle manure, Growing Power Hairy Hill L.P. (GPHH) will be Canada’s first Integrated bioRefinery(TM) when it goes on line next year. Located 120 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, the $125-million facility will produce electricity, fuel ethanol, fertilizer and even reusable water – all from one base ingredient: waste.
“Alberta has more than 70 per cent of Canada’s cattle feedlot capacity, and so the bioMass is right here,” explains Mike Kotelko, President of Highland Feeders Ltd. and one of the partners in the venture.
That’s one big pile of manure, no matter which way you shovel it. One cow produces six times the waste of one human (1,200 kilograms per animal per year), and there are 5.7 million cattle in confined feeding operations in the province. Until recently, 95 per cent of all that manure ended up being applied to agricultural land as fertilizer, but dealing with the volumes has been challenging. Direct runoff can cause soil and water contamination, especially for those cattle farms next to watersheds. And peeee-yuwww: odour is a constant issue.
As operators of one of the largest feedlot operations in Canada, Mike and brother Bern Kotelko know these challenges well. They have partnered with a second brotherly duo, Evan and Shane Chrapko, who were part of the first generation of the tech boom. The Chrapkos sold their dot-com firm, DocSpace, for $811 million Cdn. in 1999, just weeks before the bubble burst. Now they’re investing in new and promising technologies that will benefit Alberta, including the venture with the Kotelkos, under the name Highmark Renewables Research L.P.
Their “waste equals opportunity” approach focuses on squeezing maximum benefit from the last and hardest of the so-called “Four Rs” – reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. The heart of the technology that converts poop to power at the Hairy Hill facility is a patented system called Integrated bioMass/waste Utilization System (IMUS(TM)). What goes in is high-solids, high-fibre organic wastes such as manure, food industry residues and municipal garbage. What comes out is bioGas, a 100-per-cent renewable substitute for natural gas comprising methane and carbon dioxide.
The bioGas is then used to generate electricity, steam and hot water to manufacture ethanol and a renewable bio-based fertilizer. At the end of the process, there is no waste. “It’s a great opportunity to close the loop by utilizing existing infrastructure and systems, and bridge to a new age of energy,” Mike Kotelko says.
None of it would have been possible without Dr. Xiaomei Li, a Chinese scientist who made Alberta her home in the 1990s. Dr. Li’s process is so revolutionary it can separate solids and liquids, and kill off pathogens, sufficiently to make the water contained in manure reusable.
Funded by a mix of more than 100 direct and indirect private investors and government support, the GPHH plant will also produce 40 million litres of fuel ethanol a year from four million bushels of locally grown, low-grade wheat. Ethanol has the advantage of being a renewable fuel and is mainly used as a bioFuel additive for gasoline. Between 2000 and 2007, global production of ethanol escalated from 17 billion to more than 52 billion litres, most of it from agriculture feedstocks such as corn and sugar cane. [Editor's Note: GPHH's ethanol has a near-zero CO-2 content compared to regular ethanol at 40-70 grams per MJ depending on the initial feedstock and power source; regular gasoline tips the scales at 90-93 grams of CO-2 per MJ]
“It has taken innovation, creative thinking and expertise to make this all possible,” Mike Kotelko says. “Alberta thinking at its best.”
Ten years ago, Fort McMurray-based Northland Forest Products started looking at the immense outflow of waste from their lumber processing operation as an opportunity lost. Today, the company is making money off their excess outputs – both from the woody biomass and the 30 million BTUs (British Thermal Units) of heat generated in processing at any one time.
That means exhaust from the plant is harnessed to heat its buildings and kilns; sawdust is sold to the oil patch for use in clean-up applications; shavings are sold to the agricultural sector for use in livestock bedding and wood waste from the mill (called hog fuel) is sold to the local municipality for use in sewage treatment.