Alberta is famous for its black gold, but a newly commissioned $30-million biogas plant in Lethbridge is drawing attention for being on the cutting edge of green power.
“It’s potentially the most technologically advanced, privately held biogas plant in the world today,” said Thane Hurlburt, a rancher and president of Lethbridge Biogas. “We can operate the entire plant with an iPhone.”
Its three anaerobic digesters will process over 100,000 tonnes of raw material — more than half of it manure from southern Alberta dairy, hog and poultry operations.
“The vast majority (of inputs) is manure from dairy because we have a wet anaerobic digestion system,” said Hurlburt. “So we want our total solid content to be about 10 per cent through our digesters.”
The facility is owned jointly by PlanET Biogas of St. Catherines, Ont. and Alberta-based ECB Enviro North America Inc. The biogas fuels two generators and will produce about 2.8 megawatts of power, which is being sold on the province’s open market. The owners already plan to add a third generator and up the power capacity to 4.2 megawatts. The plant also generates about 100,000 gigajoules of thermal energy, with hot water used to heat their internal systems.
The project was more than a decade in the making, said Hurlburt, and could not have proceeded without $8.2 million from Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. The not-for-profit corporation gets its funding from a levy on large greenhouse gas emitters and has a mandate to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help Alberta adapt to climate change.
The project also received $6.4 million from the Alberta Energy Department, and a $5-million loan from Alberta’s Agriculture Financial Services Corporation.
The facility’s 2.8 megawatts is enough power for 2,800 homes and is expected to reduce emissions by more than 224,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas equivalent by 2020.
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Southern Alberta was a natural choice for the location of the digester because of the large number of confined animal-feeding operations in the area, said Hurlburt.
“The County of Lethbridge is the cattle-feeding capital of the country — I believe that 40 to 50 per cent of the fed cattle are fed in this county,” Hurlburt said. “There is no question that there is a plethora of input materials on the manure and agricultural side.”
The area also has a large number of farm produce operations and food-processing facilities. For example, a number of area farms produce potatoes on contract for companies such as McCain Foods, Lamb Weston, and Frito Lay. There are also canola-processing plants, and even a distillery.
“There is great potential for partnerships with county producers to use agricultural byproducts to generate sustainable energy,” said Reeve Lorne Hickey.
Still, lining up sources of raw materials was one of the biggest challenges, and required a lot of patience among potential local suppliers, said Hurlburt.
“We had a bit of a ‘Field of Dreams’ ideology — if you build it, they will come,” he said. “And that’s finally starting to happen. After approaching people for 13 years, they start to wonder if you are ever going to do what you say you are going to do.”
Lethbridge Biogas has signed five-year agreements with its manure suppliers and does not pay for the raw material. It generally charges a tipping fee for collection of inputs from commercial suppliers. The company uses a fleet of trucks to pick up raw inputs and delivers the liquid byproduct from the digesters back to the dairy lagoons. The digestion process is continuous, with a retention time in the tanks of about 35 days. A biogas plant vacuum truck visits local suppliers (typically once a day), picks up a load of liquid manure and delivers it to a storage tank on the plant site. For farms, the trucks take back a load of processed liquid byproduct that is used as organic fertilizer.
Because the system is designed for liquid manure, the company doesn’t take manure from dry feedlots because of its high solids content. Hurlburt said there is better pre-processing technology for that type of manure, also developed in Alberta, by Himark Biogas, an offshoot of Highland Feeders in Vegreville.