Edmonton’s new waste-to-biofuels plant will help the city divert up to 90 per cent of its garbage from the landfill
The Alberta Legislature Building lit up at night. Families splashing in the wave pool at West Edmonton Mall. Cyclists winding through the trails of the river valley. The glass pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory peaking over the hills of Gallagher Park. Row upon row of black compost stretching out in a building so large it could house 14 professional hockey rinks.
Photo: Enerkem Alberta Biofuels
Okay, so the Edmonton Waste Management Centre’s composting operations are not likely to pop up in any city tourism brochures in the near future. But that doesn’t make them—or the rest of the city’s waste-handling facilities, for that matter—any less impressive than Edmonton’s more postcard-pretty features.
The city has invested $450 million over several years to build the site into the complex operation it is today. An average of 4,500 trucks pass over the weigh scales on their way to delivering nearly 10,000 tonnes of waste to the centre every week, and being chucked into a hole in the ground is the least likely fate that awaits a piece of garbage sent here. Facilities are on hand to recycle everything from paper to electronics to construction waste. Biosolids and yard waste find their way into the massive composting building. The site even produces 4.8 megawatts of electricity annually from landfill gas. Public tours are available every Friday, so plan your holidays accordingly. Be sure to book ahead.
In fact, the centre may actually become something of a tourist attraction as visitors from municipalities around the globe come to check out the $100-million Enerkem Alberta Biofuels' Waste-to-Biofuels and Chemicals Facility. Described as the first facility of its kind in the world, the new plant is a banner project for the city, and don’t let Mayor Don Iveson hear you say otherwise. At the June opening, one reporter made an off-hand remark to the mayor that the project was not “sexy” when compared to other major local issues like transit. Iveson was unimpressed.
“I disagree. I think this is a sexy topic for Edmontonians,” he protested. “It’s one of the things when people question the commitment of Edmontonians and Albertans to the environment, we can point to this as global leadership. We’re very, very proud of it, and we should be.”
CLEANING UP OUR ACT
Iveson has a point. The province’s reputation is anchored to the environmental issues surrounding the oilsands, but Edmonton’s waste-management strategy has grown into a model for others to study and emulate. Currently, the city diverts 60 per cent of municipal waste from the landfill—a number that will rise to 90 per cent when the Enerkem project is running at full capacity in 2016.
The plant will annually process 100,000 tonnes of residential solid waste like non-recyclable plastics and fibres, wood and shingles into 38 million litres of biofuel. Enerkem will own and operate the plant and sell the fuels produced, while the city will pay it a fee to process the garbage. According to Jim Schubert, acting director of business planning and central operations with the city, landfilling the waste would cost $70 per tonne compared to $75 per tonne to go with Enerkem.
“For approximately the same cost, we’re going to be turning that material into something useful instead of storing it in a landfill for future generations,” he says.
The initial product will be methanol—a common additive in windshield washer fluid and a useful building block in a number of chemicals. By the end of next year, the plant will have added the ability to further process the methanol into ethanol, which can then be blended into gasoline at nearby refineries. (The federal and provincial governments both require that all gas sold in the province contain five per cent renewable content.)
Enerkem president and chief executive officer Vincent Chornet succinctly summarizes the process: “We break down the waste using heat and convert it into a gas that is as clean as natural gas, and then we convert the gas into liquid methanol.
“All of that happens in three minutes,” he adds.
However, it took over 10 years to get to this three-minute process. Enerkem and the City of Edmonton first announced an agreement to develop the project in 2008, but the technology has been in the making even longer. Since 2003, a pilot has been operating in Sherbrooke, Que., where the company has tested over 25 different feedstocks.
“The main challenge—and I would say it’s the same with any clean technology—is really the scale up from pilot to demo to commercial facility,” says Marie-Hélène Labrie, Enerkem’s senior vice-president of government affairs and communications. “You need to make sure you take a very rigorous approach to scale up your technology and do all your validation before launching your commercial construction.”
THE BUILDING PROCESS
Despite involving a largely unprecedented technology, the construction process itself went quite smoothly. Enerkem handled the engineering, procurement and construction process itself, with some support from outside consultants. Overall, 75 per cent of the work was done off-site through modularization, and 610 direct and indirect jobs were created through the construction of the plant, Labrie says.
Most of the modular work was done in Quebec shops and shipped across the country to Edmonton. In order to make it easier to buy parts in bulk and crank out facilities at a rapid pace, the company has opted to use a standard design across its projects. With similar plants already under development in Varennes, Que., and Pontotoc, Miss., this approach will allow Enerkem to keep costs down as it takes on multiple new projects at once.
The modular design also allows the plants to scale up quickly. While the company has not yet made a decision, it could easily double the Edmonton facility’s capacity to 76 million litres per year if needed, according to Labrie.
“There’s a lot of commercial waste and construction and demolition waste. We always have the opportunity to use agricultural waste,” she says. “Physically, there’s room to add a second unit, and when we look at the availability of waste in the area, there would be probably a good business case for it.”
One question that may linger is why Enerkem chose to source modules from Quebec when Edmonton itself is home to a robust modular fabrication industry. Why ship modules across the country—perhaps the most challenging part of the process, Labrie admits—when they could be shipped from a yard just 15 minutes down the road?
Chornet notes that the Montreal-based company did use some Alberta shops, but Quebec has a skilled manufacturing sector that has served the pulp and paper industry for decades. “They’re very qualified and our place of business, in terms of decision making, is Quebec. It made a lot of sense for us to source the equipment and modules from suppliers we’re close to,” he says.
Plus, both provinces stand to gain from the project, Labrie says. Alberta gets a clean technology that may help resuscitate its environmental reputation, while Quebec gets a chance to breathe some new life into its manufacturers, many of whom are still trying to recover from the recession.
“Alberta is giving Quebec an opportunity to revitalize its manufacturing sector by having this project partly built here,” she says. “It’s stimulating manufacturing here, which needs it.”