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Prairie ‘agri-preneurs’ battle megafarm waste

Gwyn Morgan, Globe and Mail – September 14, 2009

Highmark Renewables is turning out enough electricity to


power 700 homes along with environmentally safe fertilizer

The revolting image of foaming green sludge washed up on a Lake Winnipeg


beach in the Aug. 24 edition of Maclean's is part of, as the accompanying
article states: "a putrid green mat, twice the size of PEI, and clearly visible
from space ... The culprit isn't oil spills, toxic waste or even pesticides, but
nutrient overloading from fertilizers, human and animal waste." The world's
tenth-largest lake may be Canada's sickest, but this "eutrophication" problem
is occurring across the country, including Ontario's Lake Simcoe, Alberta's
Lac La Biche, Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley lakes and parts of the St.
Lawrence River. South of the border, agricultural nutrients washing into the
Mississippi River system have spawned an enormous oxygen-deficient dead
zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The problem is many-fold, from fertilizer runoff to municipal sewage disposal,


but much of the evidence points to meat and dairy animals as the biggest
contributors. In Manitoba alone, the excrement from over eight million hogs,
equivalent to the waste from 30 million humans, is spread annually into the
watershed. Alberta's eight million hogs and cattle produce the same result.
Substantial discharges also take place in other provinces including B.C.,
Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

As if watershed pollution weren't enough, anyone living downwind of the


huge crowded feedlots and pens where cattle and hogs spend most of their
lives knows all too well the noxious odours produced when untreated
excrement is spread onto forage and grain fields. As a farm kid who later
became an oil and gas company CEO, it never ceased to amaze me that
people were prepared to tolerate the destructive impacts of raw animal
waste, while protesting mightily at even the slightest whiff or drop of
hydrocarbon.

But a broad coalition of forces is taking aim at agricultural pollution with a


key focus on mega-meat producing operations. One part of the coalition is
focused on local air and ground water pollution, such as that associated with
Ontario's Walkerton tragedy. Another is focused on the deadly impact to
streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Others worry about the 18 per cent of
global greenhouse gas emissions that the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organization estimates come from livestock, a figure greater than for all
auto, rail and air transportation.
While the vast majority of intensive livestock production operators hope the
critics will go away or focus on other industries, there are those who
understand that the status quo is no longer a viable option. Fortunately,
there are forward thinking Canadian "agri-preneurs" who are turning this
growing public opinion crisis into an opportunity.

The sustainable future of livestock production is emerging from the Prairies


near the town of Vegreville in central Alberta. Here, successful farm boys
turned international entrepreneurs, Evan and Shane Chrapko have teamed
up with two other brothers, feedlot owners Mike and Bert Kotelko, in a project
that is turning manure into power and biofertilizer, with fuel ethanol soon to
be added. Their company, Highmark Renewables, is already turning out
enough electricity to power 700 homes along with large volumes of
environmentally safe fertilizer. The patented process starts with "anaerobic
digesters," large tanks where micro-organisms break down the manure into
methane, the main component of natural gas. This "biogas" is then burned to
generate power. The organic residue is "biofertilizer," a pathogen and weed-
free soil-building product suitable for agricultural as well as lawn and garden
use.

But the Chrapko and Kotelko men have a much larger vision, Canada's first
integrated bio-refinery. Their project will burn the biogas to generate the
steam and electricity that will then be used to convert high-starch feed wheat
into fuel ethanol with the nutritious residue (known as "distiller's grains")
recycled to cattle at the nearby feedlot. Conventional fuel ethanol plants are
notoriously inefficient, using almost as much hydrocarbon energy as they
produce. Because Highmark's integrated process will be fuelled by organic
waste, and since the distillers grains don't require drying due to the proximity
of the feedlot, the plant will also be Canada's first ethanol producer with a
significantly positive energy balance.

Ethanol plants have also been criticized for diverting grain "from food to
fuel." Since Highmark's plant will produce ethanol from the low-grade grain
that was previously fed directly to the cattle, the residue of which is then
recycled back to the feedlot as distillers grains, there is no additional demand
on cropland.

In the words of Evan Chrapko, "now it's a food-and-fuel process, not food
versus fuel."

The company's literature refers to a "virtuous loop" starting with untreated


organic waste from 30,000 cattle (equivalent to 180,000 humans) that would
otherwise have been spread onto the countryside, producing the power and
steam needed to convert feed-grain to fuel, with a byproduct of
environmentally friendly fertilizer. When completed, the bio-refinery will
annually turn 120,000 tonnes of feedlot manure and 110,000 tonnes of feed
wheat into 40 million litres of fuel ethanol and 10,000 tonnes of biofertilizer.

It won't come cheap. The completed plant is expected to cost about $100-
million, and there are several risks, including the price of ethanol, which
varies with the cost of gasoline and government policies for ethanol blending.
The economics also require the plant to earn credits under Alberta's
greenhouse gas reduction plan.

Highmark's vision goes well beyond this pioneering project. It plans six other
plants across the Prairies. The status quo is no longer an option. Innovation,
scientific advancement, vision and risk-taking ... more than grass and grain
grow from Prairie roots.