Photo-blog: Waste-to-Energy, farming and a $160,000 toilet

This photoblog will document an eventful day riding around on ATVs, learning about local farming, bee-keeping and waste-to-energy.
This world class bio-electric plant in southern Ontario (Elmira) takes in millions of tons of local organic garbage and converts the waste into clean baseload electricity every hour of every day. The end product returns to local farms as soil fertilizer.
At 3MW capacity, the biogas plan in Elmira is perhaps among the largest biogas facilities in Canada. It produces enough clean electricity to power 2800 Canadian homes. The facility is also projected to reduce 225,000 tonnes of greenhouse gasses by 2020. Additional details —
If you can believe it, up close, this smells even worse than it looks. However, despite the raw and decomposing nature of this raw material for the an-aerobic bio-digester, I can honestly say that I did not detect any odor on the outside of the premises. This could be attributed to the ‘3-step protocol’ for unloading dump-trucks. 1) Open outer bay door. Let truck in. Wait till outdoor bay door is completely closed. 2) Open waste hatch. Offload organic waste. Wait till hatch is closed 3) Open outer bay door. Let truck out.
On any given day, the facility is equipped to handle 4o truckloads of expired food, grease, food waste, left overs, and bio waste. A lean, efficient, and (frankly) humorous crew of 6 manage the the entire plant, sometimes from an app on their smartphones!
From left to right: Sir Uncle Buck, a 4th generation farmer who lives on the 1000 acre family farm in Moorefield, Ontario and one of the stakeholders in the biogas plant; Dr. Kirby Calvert, Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph, specializing in energy transitions through a geographic lens; Chris, one of the ‘Top Men’ running the power plant. Careers in the energy sector as as diverse as they come. Prior to working here Chris went to college for a degree in political science. ; GE Jenbacher J420 engine, with a electric output of 1.4 MW that is fed directly into the grid. The engine also has a thermal output of 0.75 MW in the form of steam that is currently untapped. In the future, this steam could be re-purposed for district heating.
You are looking at a $160,000 toilet. As a quick reminder — this biogas facility takes in millions of tons of local organic garbage, converts the waste into clean energy and soil fertilizer. All these co-benefits make little difference to the faceless regulator. Since the facility is technically an industrial site, regulations mandate industrial grade hazardous effluent management systems, regardless of the nature of the discharge. It cost this business $160,000 to simply be able to poop according to regulations, even though exactly 10 meters away 6,000,000 gallons of all manner of organic waste is being turned into electricity.
Headed over to the nearly 1000 acre Uncle Buck’s (Ross Enterprises) farm to learn more about sustainable farming practices. Not pictured: solar panels. Uncle Buck’s farm is said to produce more (clean) energy than it consumes.
Meet the real boss of this enterprise
Riding ATVs is always fun, and it is easy to forget how handy and versatile they can be. Especially on uneven terrain of tilled fields.
Modern farming is aided by these marvels of engineering. The cab is essentially a cockpit+office, leather upholstery and even includes an MP3 player with sub-woofers and Bluetooth support. Each machine is GPS enabled, and can be remotely monitored through your personal device. The operations center can transmit data into the cloud (if the user so chooses). This information is turned into actionable items like reports, maps and aggregate statistics about average yield, soil moisture etc. A farmer we spoke to estimates that these machines use 1 gallon of diesel fuel per acre.
‘Bee colonies at the edge of the field. These are the most important workers on the farm — they are the reason we are able to produce food in the first place. Uncle Buck works to maintain pollination grounds for these critters, and in return they help to pollinate crops and other plants in the area. Yet another example of how farmers can provide multiple ecosystem services if they are willing to integrate these activities into their operation.’ — Kirby
Free range turkeys take temporary shelter from the cold wet winds outside. Uncle Buck’s farm is the only licensed non-organic turkey producer in Ontario allowed to range turkeys outdoors. Uncle Buck tells us his 9000 large turkeys roam outside yards in fresh air and direct sunlight. Their sustenance is all natural feed with no animal bi-products.
Chickens in an egg farm. The average hen lays about 300 eggs every year. Hens lay eggs in their cages. The floors of the cages are tilted to let the eggs roll unto the conveyor belt in front of the enclosures. The belt consolidates all the eggs and brings them into a packaging area where they are sorted, manually inspected and stored in a walk in cooler. The eggs are subsequently graded at the nearest Canada Food Inspection Agency. To learn more about the hows and whys of Canadian egg grading, click here.
‘The sun is setting on these environmental cover crops, but we hope that symbolism isn’t prophetic. These crops aren’t sold on market for a profit — they are a longer term investment into important services with long-term benefits. Environmental cover crops help retain soil moisture, stimulate below-ground biodiversity (earth worms and other soil enhancing critters), while sequestering carbon. Despite these benefits, most farmers need to worry about short-term profit to stay viable and so they forgo cover crops. We should think about ways to encourage farmers to grow more of these, perhaps by paying them directly for the services cover crops provide through, say, a carbon offset & carbon credit program’ — Kirby