Collaboration key to meeting resource sector sustainability goals

Doef's Greenhouses Source: EnerMerge Inc.

In central Alberta, just outside the farming community of Lacombe, exists a unique collaboration between a greenhouse vegetable grower and a private natural gas company.  

Doef’s Greenhouses, in partnership with EnerMerge Inc., is using local natural gas to provide power, heat and carbon dioxide to its 11-acre greenhouse operation, and are the midst of bringing on four 13-acre expansions.

EnerMerge is a part owner of Horseshoe Power Ltd., which owns and operates the tri-generation facility on the farm and the production facilities in surrounding natural gas fields. Producing electricity, heat and carbon dioxide (CO2), the facility supplies all of the greenhouse operation’s energy needs.

Electricity generated is used for the lighting system that supplements natural sunlight in nine acres of production area, enabling the greenhouse to grow crops year-round. The 5.3-megawatt energy centre is connected to the local energy grid, and unused electricity is fed into the system. Waste heat from the centre’s four combined heat and power generators is used to heat water to warm the greenhouses. Heat that’s not needed immediately is stored for later use.

The CO2 produced is scrubbed and then used in the greenhouse to speed plant growth.

A second tri-gen centre is currently being built alongside the ongoing greenhouse expansion, indicating the success of the venture.   

The partnership between Doef’s and EnerMerge is a model of what Alberta’s key resource sectors—agriculture, energy, and forestry—can accomplish when they work together, sector leaders said at a virtual workshop in late March. 

It’s an example of the Alberta Advantage, said Michael Koornneef, senior relationship manager with Farm Credit Canada, which was involved in the project. Koornneef said the mutually beneficial arrangement between the greenhouse and gas company allowed the greenhouse to accelerate its expansion plans while providing a local market for the abundance of gas wells in the area, all the while using CO2 that would have been emitted into the atmosphere.   

“It’s gone well for both parties,” said Koornneef. The greenhouse operators are saving on heating costs, and while paying market rates for electricity are saving on distribution costs. The oil and gas company has a ready market for its gas, saves on transportation costs, and adds value to its production through vertical integration.    

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge driver in creating demand for both Canadian and locally grown produce as the pandemic challenged international supply chains, he said.

“People are more aware of where their food comes and more willing to pay for it,” he explained, adding that he expects to see more applications for loans for these types of integrated energy and agricultural projects in the future.

But to make that happen there needs to be improved communication across sectors with each bringing its own expertise to the table. Focus on what you are good at, be open to new ideas, and do your research, Koornneef advised both energy and agricultural producers when investigating these opportunities.

The purpose of the March workshop, the second in a series of planned efforts, is to drive new efforts between resources sectors to accelerate this type of innovation, said Bill Whitelaw, managing director, Strategy & Business Development, for geoLOGIC systems Ltd. and JWN Energy. There are lots of positive pressures on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) fronts that are currently accelerating technological innovation and Alberta is well positioned to build out a more sustainable economy if it can capture the opportunities presented. By collaborating on emissions, land use, and water use, the resource sector can find common ground on both improving economic and environmental performance.

“I’m not suggesting this is something new. We’re building on a great tradition in Alberta,” he added. “We just want to spin the flywheel faster.”

Canary Biofuels is another example of the emerging opportunities that exist to work together. Canary is in the process of upgrading an existing biofuel plant at Lethbridge with the goal of ultimately producing three million gallons of biodiesel annually, while producing bio-glycerin as a byproduct. The plant, once up to scale, will abate around 400,000 metric tonnes of transportation emissions annually.   

Canary Biofuels chief executive officer George Wadsworth said there are a variety of other benefits to the biodiesel facility. It will provide new markets to oilseed producers, and provide markets for both animal and vegetable byproducts that are often difficult to sell. It will also reduce reliance on imported gasoline and diesel needed to meet clean fuel requirements.

Wadsworth, who spent 25 years in the energy industry, said it also represents opportunity for traditional oil and gas professionals to launch into a new career path.  

“There’s already collaboration of science, engineering and chemistry in these plants,” he explained. “A lot of oil and gas expertise goes into these plants.”

Further ahead, he pointed to efforts of car manufacturer VW to develop new fuels using bio-fuels and hydrogen as a potential opportunity for Alberta’s energy and agricultural industries.

“Alberta is a perfect spot for this,” Wadsworth said. “It’s an energy powerhouse. It’s a perfect scenario combining our energy and engineering expertise with agriculture.”

Wendy Ell, senior lead industry relations and partnerships with geoLOGIC systems Ltd. and JWN Energy, said the ongoing agriculture/energy/forestry collaborative effort is targeting these types of scenarios. 

“We are wanting to unearth truly actionable ideas,” said Ell. “We are looking for ideas on the cross-over potential for certain best practices and best technologies, and specifically the "how to collaborate" elements that sit behind those great ideas.” “Furthermore, we're also looking for where skills might best be transferred either by re-assigning folks from one sector to challenges in another sector – so as to save time and money from starting to tackle issues from scratch,” she added.   

The resource sector workshop, entitled Growing Forward Together: An energy, agriculture and forestry industry collaboration workshop, was sponsored by Nutrien, AgExpert, and EY.

Partners included: Ag for Life, Radicle, Weather Innovations, and JWN Energy.  

Editor’s NoteIn late-March leaders from the agriculture, energy, and forestry industry gathered virtually to discuss how they could work together to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues impacting their respective industries. The focus was on finding opportunities to collaborate on projects in emissions reduction, water use and quality challenges, and land use challenges.

This three-part editorial series addresses the outcomes from this workshop.

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