January 25, 2011 | General

Ontario Farm Digester Persists In Power Market

BioCycle January 2011, Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 34
Operating its anaerobic digester for about a year, dairy farmer reflects on the benefits and challenges, especially with regard to its FIT contract.
Peter Gorrie

HELPING to develop a biogas project on her family’s farm put Jennifer Green on a new path. The experience, confronting a bureaucratic obstacle course that delayed and impeded the $3 million project, inspired her to become an advocate for the industry. Since May 2010, as executive director of the fledgling Agrienergy Producers’ Association of Ontario, Green has worked to make biogas more than a stunted afterthought in Ontario’s renewable energy plans.
“I’m passionate for this,” says Green, 35, a geological engineer, nutrient consultant, mother of three and now expert in the biology, technology and politics of producing methane from manure to generate many benefits for Ontario. “It’s a personal issue. I do this because I believe it can be possible for anyone to do it. It’s socially accepted, environmentally beneficial and could make an economic contribution.”
If only Ontario’s politicians and energy regulators saw it that way.
The Green family’s Ledgecroft Farm, 200 miles northeast of Toronto in Seeley’s Bay, Ontario, illustrates what’s involved in developing biogas in Canada’s most populous province and why, despite the potential for hundreds of on-farm projects, no more than 26 have been built, are under construction or are in active planning. “This project didn’t come without obstacles, and there are still more to face,” says Green. “And there are challenges for the industry that are prohibiting it from becoming a reality for others.”
Jennifer’s parents, Ben and Laura, bought the 650-acre farm in 1971, and it’s where they raised Jennifer as well as another daughter and a son, who now is part owner of the farm. With rented property, they work 1,100 acres, raising 500 head of Holstein dairy cattle and growing hay, soybeans and corn for silage and grain.
Four years ago, Ben Green attended an open house at one of Ontario’s first biogas projects, on a dairy farm operated by George and Linda Heinzle, a couple of hours drive east of Ledgecroft. “I thought, ‘what a compatible project to put on our farm,'” he says. “We’ve got the manure. What the digester does with it is nothing short of remarkable.” He then visited biogas projects in Germany, the world leader in producing electricity from farm-animal wastes. “What’s the difference,” he concluded: “If they can do it there, we can do it here.”
Germany was 10 to 12 years ahead of Ontario, he adds. To take advantage of its experience, the Greens hired PlanET Biogas Solutions Inc., a consulting and contracting firm created by PlanET Joint Ventures, of Vreden, Germany, and Martin Lensink, a 30-year veteran in the Canadian energy industry. From the outset, the family insisted on strict deadlines for the contractors and adopted two crucial principles: The project had to be planned and approved on paper before a shovel went into the ground. And the regulators must be carefully attended to. “We’re business people,” Green says. “We put good people on at the start. When we came to a hurdle (with a regulatory authority) we addressed them in a professional business manner to satisfy their requirements. It made the project easy to put on the farm.”
“Easy” is in the eye of the beholder, says Jennifer Green, who was on maternity leave when the project was being developed, and became the liaison between the family, government agencies and contractors. But, she laughs, that’s her father, who exudes enthusiasm and optimism. “Dad is a visionary. It takes someone of that caliber to make something like this happen. He has a level of dedication and commitment.”
But, “this was not one big, happy project,” she adds. And she wants the Agrienergy Producers’ Association to gain enough influence to ensure the same roadblocks and frustrations don’t stymie others. “Biogas makes sense and is more than an energy solution. It doesn’t have to be easy, but it should be able to come without aggravation, delay and stress.”
The provincial government is officially supportive of biogas, in which the anaerobic digestion of manure and food wastes produces methane that fuels an electricity generator. The process is recognized as part of Ontario’s Feed-in Tariff, or FIT, program – North America’s first, which pays premium rates for electricity generated by renewable energy resources. The list also includes wind, solar, biomass, landfill gas and small-scale waterpower.
Biogas producers receive from 10.4 to 19.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for electricity they send to the provincial grid, with the smallest projects getting the highest amount. These rates are above the current retail/wholesale price, which varies from 5.3 to 9.9 cents/kWh, depending on the time of day the electricity is consumed. But Green says a direct comparison isn’t possible since the current rates are subsidized through general tax revenues. In any case, she notes, a higher price is justified by benefits from a decentralized system, including savings on transmission and distribution and the potential for improved power quality in rural areas.
The Green’s were eager to move their project forward, but they went slowly and carefully. Planning and approvals for the project occupied most of 2008. “It took a lot of legwork,” Ben Green recalls. Family members and consultants worked with various agencies, including the Ontario Power Authority, which manages the electricity system, and Hydro One, which controls the grid to ensure the system met all requirements. Everything was documented on paper, he says. “The design was formally accepted by everybody … right on the wall. A lot of hurdles were removed before we ever broke ground.”

Construction finally began in April 2009 and the generator was turned on eight months later. The Green’s insisted on as much local sourcing as possible: Some $500,000 worth of equipment and services, mostly construction and electrical work, was obtained within 12 miles of the farm. That not only benefited their neighbors but also assured that in an emergency they could get help within minutes from an expert familiar with the system.
The heart of the installation is a 400,000-gallon digester vessel and a 500-kw, Austrian-built GE Jenbacher generator. A wide array of pipes, pumps, heating systems, electrical connections and computer controls keep it running smoothly.
The farm must buy electricity to run the system from the provincial grid, at the retail rate plus additional taxes and charges for delivery and reducing the system’s debt that, when combined, more than double the cost, and double the size of the metering system. A 35-kw diesel back-up generator is on standby to keep the elaborate control systems operating if the grid supply should fail.
The process starts with Houle free-stall scrapers slowly pushing manure across the farm’s two barns and into troughs. Once an hour, the material is pumped to a central tank and stirred into liquid form. From there, automatically metered amounts, totaling about 10,000 gallons/day, are sent through underground pipes into the digester.
Also added daily is about 2,500 gallons of off-farm food industry waste, delivered by Toronto-based Organic Resource Management Inc. and stored in an underground tank. The Ontario Environment Ministry requires that these wastes be pasteurized, by keeping them at more than 140°F for an hour. The generator supplies heat for that process. The digester is operated at a mesophilic temperature of 86°F.
The proportion of food wastes must be just right for efficient digestion, Ben Green says. “Just like feeding cows, we have a menu. It has to be effective in its supply of proteins, carbohydrates and fiber. The vessel is no different. It’s like a giant ruminant. The organic waste is like the addition of necessary nutrients.” The 4:1 ratio (manure:food waste) seems ideal, he adds. The electricity produced is transmitted along a three-phase wire to the nearest substation on the provincial grid, 15 miles away.
Digestate is spread on the fields. The process destroys most pathogens in the manure and also converts the nitrogen it contains into a form of ammonia that plants take up very efficiently, so crop yields are expected to improve. The generator produces more than enough heat to warm the digester and its related equipment, as well as the barns and other farm buildings and the Green family’s house. There’s such a “tremendous amount,” Green says, they “can’t get rid of it all.”
Nothing is planned at the moment to capture and use the excess heat. Likewise, the Greens haven’t followed the lead of other on-farm digester projects that include plans for additional by-products, such as a peat moss substitute, a material for retail plant containers. They are working with researchers at Queen’s University, in nearby Kingston on possible additional technologies. Jennifer Green foresees a time when the tanker truck that comes to the farm for a load of milk could also fill its fuel tank with biomethane.

With their project’s capacity of 500 kilowatts, the Green’s FIT contract calls for them to be paid 16 cents/kWh. That capacity is tailored to the program’s regulations: If it were greater than 500 kw, the payment would be reduced by nearly 10 percent.
The Green’s are able to earn more than the set rate by taking advantage of another FIT rule that sets different prices for electricity produced during periods of peak and low demand. They receive just over 22 cents for every kilowatt-hour sent to the grid between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., but only about 15 cents during the remaining “off-peak” hours. To make the most of the higher rate, Ben Green says the generator runs “flat out” during the day but sometimes operates below capacity while the lower rate applies. The result is an average rate of 16.4 cents.
A limited amount of the digester’s methane can be stored. To ensure there’s enough for the peak periods, the system automatically slows the generator to 328 kw if the gas supply drops below a certain threshold in an off-peak period. Thus, while the peak hours occupy only one-third of each 24-hour period, almost half of each day’s production occurs within them. The day before BioCycle visited the farm, the project had generated 10,400 kWh of electricity – slightly more than the budget plan requires. “The bills are paid at 10,000,” Green says. “And we get that most days.”
But Jennifer Green frequently uses the word “challenges” when describing the situation faced by her family and every other farmer aiming to set up a biogas project in Ontario – and to explain what spurred her to become an industry advocate. The Green’s project was delayed by difficulties in obtaining a Certificate of Approval from the provincial Environment Ministry and negotiations over Hydro One’s demands for a complex and expensive grid connection. When it was ready to go into operation, the project still hadn’t received its FIT contract, and without it, the farm wouldn’t be paid for putting electricity on to the grid. So the family ran the digester at low volume over its first winter, keeping it at the required temperature with heat from a wood stove.

Green cites several other impediments, and argues they should be avoided if other North American jurisdictions introduce feed-in tariffs:
Electricity Purchase: The requirement that all the electricity generated on the farm flows into the grid and that the Green’s buy what they consume at the retail rate adds to their costs and is not logical. The purchase price includes the delivery and debt-reduction charges that, she says, shouldn’t apply to their type of generation, which is distributed to the local community instead of coming from other traditional sources further away.
High Grid Connection Costs: The bill for the wire to the substation was $416,000. Green calls that private investment dollars put toward improving public infrastructure.
Low FIT Rates: Ontario pays much less for electricity from biogas than European countries with feed-in tariffs.
Inflation Provision: The FIT program includes a 20 percent increase in the rates over the 20-year contract period to account for inflation. That might be sufficient for other renewable technologies, which have lower operating costs, but not for biogas, Green says. “There are a million different moving parts, all subject to inflation … that won’t sustain themselves over 20 years.” One major item: The generator will have to be replaced twice during the contract.
Income Grab: The Ontario Power Authority insists on taking any ‘environmental attributes’ such as carbon credits that might become available, as well as 80 percent of the profits from new products developed for new markets. Biogas has the potential to contribute to rural economic development, drive innovation and foster research only if producers are allowed to maintain ownership of all credits and income resulting from their additional investments.
Under these circumstances, Green says, two things made her family’s project possible. First, her father and other family members put in a lot of unpaid hours. “Farmers underestimate and undervalue their commitment,” she says. “They love their work so they don’t give themselves credit for the time and effort to make the project successful. They will roll with it and make it work.”
Second, the Green’s received about $500,000 in subsidies, including $400,000 from the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs under a grant program that has been discontinued. In fact, only projects that received that support are going ahead. “Without change and recognition of the points we’re making to the government, the industry won’t develop to its fullest extent, where there will be a sustainable future for it,” Green says. There wouldn’t, for example, be enough projects to support local service and supply existing businesses.
The FIT program is to be reviewed next year, but the changes can’t wait until then, she adds. “These are issues of immediate concern.” To date, while the government has given biogas producers “a chance to sit down at the table and discuss,” they’re not saying: “we’ll accept your changes.”
Page 36 Sidebar
THE farm biogas industry was given only passing mention in Ontario’s new long-term energy plan. “It’s not being called on … to its full potential,” says Dan Jones, president of the Agrienergy Producers’ Association of Ontario (APAO). The group “is working to ensure biogas is prioritized and recognized for its immediate benefits to electrical ratepayers and to Ontario as a whole.”
One aim is to win wider support from within the government, says Jennifer Green, executive director of APAO. The Ontario Ministry of Environment, perhaps, could recognize the role of biogas in reducing farms’ environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, diverting organic wastes from landfill and protecting groundwater. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs might once again contribute to it as the vehicle to safely manage manure and nutrients while rebuilding soil, reclaiming unused lands and making family farms more sustainable.
There’s no specific estimate of the potential for on-farm biogas in Ontario, “but it’s a contribution that’s untapped,” says Green. “It has more than ample potential.” She, and the association’s board of directors, are trying to build the group’s size and strength, by signing up more farmers, as well as suppliers, legal services, financiers, students – “everyone with an interest in biogas.”
Membership has grown by 65 percent since APAO was founded last May, but it’s still small, she adds. “The challenges facing the biogas industry also make if more difficult for the association to garner support, interest and clout by way of attracting new members. The political environment and timing also are challenging. But I have seen a commitment in the membership that makes me believe it’s changing.”

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