George Dick’s $45-million biogas digester plant in Chilliwack stands out amidst the foggy, fertile fields of British Columbia’s dairy country.
Within the biogas digester’s two huge, sealed tanks, cow manure and food waste stew in a bacterial soup. Enclosed in the tanks by a plastic membrane stretched over the roof, these bacteria are robbed of oxygen and act as if they were still in the stomach of a cow. They consume calories from the manure and emit methane. This methane is captured, cleaned, compressed and fed into a pipeline that connects directly to the FortisBC natural gas grid.
The biogas digester is an elegant solution: It cuts down methane emissions while also producing a usable fuel.
But despite how elegant such solutions are, implementing them is hard. Mr. Dick’s company, Dicklands Biogas, currently the largest one in British Columbia, received little financial help from the federal or provincial government. While Mr. Dick did get a small bank loan, for the most part lenders were hesitant to touch such a steep, and seemingly high-risk, investment.
Those like Mr. Dick face a problem: Biogas digesters are expensive, and Canada, without relevant incentives such as those in the United States, lacks the investment ecosystem to scale up such technology.
That’s also a bigger problem. Canada has committed to reducing methane production by 30 per cent by 2030 (compared with 2020 levels). And the largest contributor to methane emissions after the oil and gas sector is agriculture.
Ten per cent of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions are from crop and livestock production. Within that, beef production contributes more to emissions, but the dairy sector is still a sizable player. A single lactating dairy cow’s methane emissions are on par with the greenhouse gases emitted by a mid-sized vehicle driven 20,000 kilometres. Dairy Farmers of Canada, a national organization that represents these farmers, has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions from dairy production by 2050.
Cows produce methane in two ways. The first is enteric, the methane produced through the internal digestive process and emitted when the animal passes gas. Solutions for these emissions are complex, but continuing. Researchers are working to change the diet and genetics of dairy cows to minimize the amount of enteric methane produced.
It’s the second way cows emit methane that biogas digesters like Mr. Dick’s tackle: through their manure. Often manure is stored in large wet ponds where bacteria and enzymes mix, producing methane that then enters the atmosphere. A biogas digester traps these emissions in a sealed tank, and they are next condensed and used as fuel for on-farm equipment or sold to the natural gas grid.
At Dicklands’s biogas plant, approximately 60 tonnes of manure produced by 1,600 cows (800 on his own operation and 800 from neighbouring farms) are combined with food waste from nearby manufacturers. The mix of manure with a range of substances – unsold dog food, pig fat byproduct and spoiled cheese – is fed to the digester and turned into natural gas. The plant can produce 180,000 gigajoules of biogas a year.
Beyond the environmental benefits, the biogas plant is a great way for Mr. Dick to diversify his income. He sells the gas to Fortis and takes the solid manure left over and turns it into organic pellets. He hopes to sell these in bulk to farms across Canada.
However, even with these extra income streams, it will still be 15 years until he can pay off the debt on the digester.
Despite securing a 20-year contract with Fortis, with little help from governments or banks, Mr. Dick had to turn to project financing. Fortunately, he received a fixed rate, and secured it during a time of low interest rates.
Not only will Mr. Dick be paying off that debt for a long time, he knows the same opportunities would not be open to him now.
The battle to secure financing is a challenge with which Shikha Jain is all too familiar. As chief executive officer of Green Energy Trading Corp., Ms. Jain has ambitions to build more than 300 biogas digesters across Canada within the next 15 years.
She is hoping to somewhat mimic the Danish model where a network of farm-based biogas digesters has filled 50 per cent of natural gas pipelines. The GET Corp. model is hub and spoke: Biogas digesters in rural, agricultural centres would take in manure, sell it to natural gas providers and return the solid manure waste for fertilizer. GET Corp. would assist farmers with the building and maintenance of the facilities.
GET Corp. has the plans for 30 plants under way. Farmers are keen to participate, Ms. Jain says. GET Corp. also has a partnership with Danish biogas experts that gives it exclusive rights to Danish technology. However, it is struggling to secure financing.
“The economics work out,” said Ms. Jain, who stressed that the industry is not looking for government handouts. Instead, she wants to see the kind of input tax credits and mature carbon credits offered in other jurisdictions, such as the United States. She pointed to the March, 2023, federal budget, which offered $70-billion to support investments in clean electricity and clean growth, a bid to help Canada compete with the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. Biogas and renewable natural gas projects were not included.
“Canada is losing the opportunity to benefit from an energy transition,” Ms. Jain said, adding that she knows companies and investment are flowing south of the border. “Producers are ready to step up. It is really unfortunate that financing is the barrier holding us back.”
Karen Beauchemin sees this as part of a more concerning trend. A researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dr. Beauchemin is a specialist in reducing the environmental impact of the dairy and beef industries. She says that innovative solutions have come out of Canada but the momentum is not what it should be for a developed country with a sizable agricultural industry.
Dr. Beauchemin says this is a missed opportunity to turn the tide in an industry – agriculture – that could be part of the solution to the climate crisis, not the problem.
“We’re part of the solution,” said Dr. Beauchemin, who pointed to biogas digesters but also to the role of beef cattle in preserving Canada’s grasslands. “I think dairy farmers and beef producers can be part of the nature-based solution.”
Back in Chilliwack, standing near a rustic barn full of cows and shadowed by a high-tech biogas digester, Mr. Dick echoes this sentiment. He says that the future of food production is efficient, high-tech problem solving.
“This is possible,” Mr. Dick said. “People just need to see it. They need to actively see it.”