Taking Anaerobic Digestion by Storm

Ontario, Canada-based StormFisher Biogas is ready to cause a whirlwind of activity with its plans to develop up to 30 anaerobic digestion plants in North America within the next five years.
By Anna Austin
In the world of renewable energy, anaerobic digestion has swept across the globe like an epidemic. In today's economy, alternatives to ever-volatile energy costs are being aggressively pursued.

Although the concept of transforming what would normally be disposed of as waste into useable energy is not new, its applicability has expanded considerably. In addition to being a cheaper energy source, to some businesses it is a way to alleviate costly tipping fees associated with waste disposal.

That‘s what StormFisher Biogas is counting on as it develops projects for up to 30 anaerobic digestion plants in North America. Although the company is only a few years old, it has set its goals high-and has $350 million in capital to fuel its efforts.

Based in Ontario, Canada, StormFisher sees the value of being versatile. Leaning slightly away from the trend toward on-site farm animal manure digestion, the company is preparing to accept byproducts from beef, fruit and vegetable processing, brewing, winemaking and distilling, and ethanol, biodiesel, rendering and dairy operations that will be transported to strategically located digestion plants.

Ryan Little, vice president of StormFisher business development, says the initial appeal for businesses to contract their waste with StormFisher is to gain access to a cheaper alternative than landfill disposal. From a consumer's perspective, businesses would be seen in a more positive light, especially those involved in food manufacturing, if they are contributing to clean energy and sustainability, rather than adding to crowded landfills and emitting foul odors and pathogens.

Taking Off
London, Ontario, will soon be home to StormFisher's flagship project-the company's first $15 million biogas plant. Construction is slated to start in July, and Little says it has been long awaited. "Initially, we had planned to be operational this year, but since it's the first of its kind in Ontario the regulatory aspects are taking longer than we had anticipated," he says. "There are lots of moving parts in this business-from feedstock to energy off-take to [carbon dioxide], construction strategy and regulations-all of it is coming together pretty nicely, but it has been a long haul for sure."

The London plant, which should be operational in the spring of 2010, will utilize approximately 140,000 tons of food processing waste from local grocery stores, meat processing plants and industrial bakeries. With an output of about 2.8 megawatts (MWs), Little says the plant will be able to supply power to about 2,800 houses. "That number could vary depending on whether they leave the lights on or run the dishwasher a lot," he jokes. "But I use the proxy of one house per kilowatt-which is about the equivalent of 2,800."

StormFisher will construct, own and operate all of its plants, and sell the energy to the Ontario government for use in its power grid. Little says the company was formed partly in response to the province's Standard Offer Program, a feed-in tariff that was put in place in Ontario at the beginning of 2007. Feed-in tariffs are incentives to encourage the adoption of renewable energy through government legislation. Regional or national electric utilities are obligated to buy renewable electricity at above market rates, which are set by the government, to help overcome any cost disadvantages of using renewable energy sources. According to the program criteria, biogas projects under 10 megawatts are paid 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

Spain, the U.K. and Australia have all adopted feed-in tariffs. "My co-founders and I viewed the enactment of the tariff as a chance to level the playing field and let entrepreneurs, rather than utility companies that had been developing 120-megawatt wind projects before, gain access to this market," Little says. "So that's what got us started-our goal was to start something that was environmentally friendly, one way or another."

After extensive research and analysis of many different renewable energy technologies, Little and StormFisher co-founders, Bas Van Berkel and Christopher Guillon, believe that from an entrepreneurial standpoint, there is a huge opportunity for biogas, not just in Ontario but across North America. "It's something that made sense-taking a waste product and being able to create something valuable, in terms of the energy and fertilizer," Little says. "The three of us started that way, and attracted interest from a Boston private equity company (Denham Capital Management), which is supporting us for 30 projects over a period of five years. We've grown to a company of about 25 to 30 people, and now have our noses to the grindstone."

Development Methodology
When selecting a site for a biogas plant, as with plants of any type, several logistical issues must be considered.

"Really, it's a soup of things," Little says. "The first thing we look for is a location that is a willing host-a province or state that supports green energy and wants a plant. It makes things a lot easier if they are on our side rather than resistant; some places just aren't keen on these types of things. We look at environmental regulations and whether they are supportive."

Another key factor is power-and the potential to enter into a long-term, fixed-rate contract. "Ontario's been great that way," Little says. "The government will buy all the power we create at a fixed price for 20 years." In the U.S., Wisconsin is considering a similar program that could kick in toward the end of the year, and there are 10 to 20 other states looking at feed-in tariffs.

The next step is to analyze feedstock market dynamics. "It's great if there is a huge food processing industry with tons of byproducts being generated," Little says. "But if there are landfills nearby that take it for $10 per ton, it doesn't work out as well. We look for places that need to responsibly manage these byproducts." In many cases, tipping and transportation fees can be more than $100 per ton, he says.

Feedstock logistics could influence not only the location but also the size of the plant. "It depends on how much feedstock is available in a certain area, because we don't want to be trucking it in too far," Little says. StormFisher's 2.8 MW London plant will be one of the company's smallest plants. The company also plans to build a second plant in DeForest, Wis., which will produce 5 MW and will likely be the maximum size of StormFisher's plants. "If more feedstocks are available, we could go bigger," he says. "We'd like to go bigger at some point, but five looks to be the maximum right now."

Little says all materials will be transported via truck, but the hiring for trucking services will be done on a case-by-case basis. "A group using the same transport company for 30 years might want to maintain that relationship," he says.

In addition to the London and DeForest plants, StormFisher has developed a third project in Lethbridge, Alberta-a 3.2 MW plant that will power about 3,000 area homes. All necessary permits have been granted for this project, which is in its final stages of development and is slated to break ground in 2010.

StormFisher's plants will utilize a continuous digestion system, where organic matter is constantly added in stages to the reactor-rather than a batch system, where material is added to the reactor at the start of the process in a batch, and is sealed for the duration of the process.

StormFisher doesn't own its own technology and has no plans to develop one. The company prefers to work with technology suppliers on a plant-by-plant basis and hopes to emulate the successful biogas industry in countries such as Europe, where more than 5,000 biogas plants are in operation similar to the ones StormFisher is developing.

Although the range of possibilities for plant locations is broad, StormFisher will focus on the most promising and welcoming areas. "Ontario, Wisconsin and Alberta are our current areas of focus right now," Little says. "With being able to move ahead now-and the election of President Obama-it's really an exciting time."

Anna Austin is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at aaustin@bbiinternational.com or (701) 738-4968.