KELVIN VANDERVEEN doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist, although there are some who might categorize him as such.
About four years ago, when the price of natural gas was spiking, the manager and co-owner of the largest greenhouse on the Prairies -- Vanderveens' Greenhouses Ltd. in Carman -- decided he needed to find a cheaper fuel.
Vanderveen won't say how much the company was spending on natural gas. But with a million square feet devoted to bedding and potted plants destined for retail giants like Safeway and Superstore and a host of smaller stores, the company's heating bill was huge.
"It was hardly economical to continue operating a greenhouse on the Prairies, so I had to take a serious look at how do I lower my heating costs and stay competitive," Vanderveen said in an interview this week.
The company looked at a number of cheaper fuel alternatives, including coal as well as so-called biomass alternatives such as wood chips and oat husks en route to becoming one of the first large commercial operators in Manitoba to burn crop residue in bulk form.
In the end, Vanderveen settled on flax shives, the byproduct from a flax straw processing plant located only five kilometres away.
The conversion from burning natural gas to flax shives was not for the faint of heart. It cost the company millions of dollars to buy new specialized boilers and install the new system, which included a large loading area for the shives.
"There was a big, big learning curve, lots of problems to (overcome to) get it going," Vanderveen said. "(In the) first year, there were times I thought I had made a big mistake."
The company hopes to recoup its investment, through fuel savings, in the next few years. On a cold day, his greenhouse furnaces use 60 to 70 tonnes of loose shives a day -- or about five semi-loads.
His supplier, Schweitzer-Maudit Canada Inc., buys flax straw from farmers and extracts the fibre from it for use in the specialized paper industry. The greenhouse gets the leftovers. "They have a key into my building and often they'll unload at night," Vanderveen said.
Manitoba, with an abundance of biomass from wood and crop residue, is still taking baby steps to harness the resource into a green fuel that will significantly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Bio-energy is considered neutral in terms of carbon dioxide emissions since burning biomass fuels merely releases the CO2 plants absorbed during their lifespans. By displacing fossil fuels, their use helps slow the rate of climate change.
Crop residues from millions of hectares of cropland present a considerable opportunity to adopt green energy. Often, though, crop residue is seen more as a nuisance by farmers, who burn their stubble to get a quick start on field preparations for the following year.
Several years ago, the province estimated over 161,000 hectares of crop land were burned after harvest. If the straw had instead been burned as heating fuel, it would have had the potential to heat 100,000 homes for a year, according to one estimate.
In Europe, some countries are already using crop residues on a fairly large scale for heating. Several years ago, Dennis St. George, a bio-systems engineer with Manitoba Hydro, visited Sweden and Denmark, which are heating whole communities using biomass.
He visited one Danish town close to the size of Steinbach that is completely heated by a system that burns cereal grain straw. The straw, provided by a farm co-op, is taken off the field in large square bales and then fed into a shredder before it goes into the boiler.
Here in Manitoba, a number of the early adapters to biomass energy have been people like Vanderveen, who have been lucky to be situated near abundant supplies that are cheap to acquire and gather.
In the near future, a number of large coal users are likely to become converts to bio-energy -- in part because of a new carbon tax Manitoba is instituting in July 2011.
One company that stands to take a hit from the new tax is Graymont Inc., which operates a large lime production plant near Moosehorn. It's facing a tax bill of $400,000 a year.
Sirahuen Maldonado, Graymont Inc.'s Manitoba plant manager, said for economic and environmental reasons the company is exploring a variety of biomass fuel sources including oat hulls (from an oat processor in Portage la Prairie), flax shives and sunflower hulls.
It's already conducted a few limited trial runs, with some success. But investing huge amounts of money during a recession to convert to a new energy system is tough.
"We know that these carbon taxes are going to increase our costs," Maldanado said recently. "But for us to switch from coal to biomass is a multi-million (dollar) project."
And unlike the situation with Vanderveens' in Carman, Graymont has no cheap close fuel supplier -- at least not yet. In the near term, it is looking at trucking in crop residue -- be it oat hulls or flax shives -- from afar, making the proposition costly. Complicating matters is that trucking firms generally don't like to haul crop residue because it's difficult to handle and relatively light (truckers are paid according to weight).
Despite these difficulties, Graymont is looking at converting to biomass energy by late 2011 or 2012, Maldanado said.
According to the province, Hutterite colonies collectively may be Manitoba's largest users of coal. It's estimated that more than 70 of the province's 100-plus Hutterite communities burn coal to heat their barns and workshops.
Several colonies are converting their heating systems from coal-based to biomass, using a heating system designed by a Manitoba engineer, Eugene Gala, and manufactured in Headingley by the Sturgeon Creek Colony.
The Blue Flame Stoker can burn wood chips, shavings or pellets and a variety of farm crop residue, from corn and sunflower stalks, flax shives and wheat and barley straw.
St. George said Manitoba Hydro is interested in the development of biomass energy because for many coal users, the next cheapest source of energy is hydroelectric power.
"That presents a risk to us as people shift from traditional to renewable (energy forms) and they pick electricity," St. George said.
Higher electrical demand means less Manitoba power available for export and the potential need for more northern hydro dam construction.
Hydro shows how
Manitoba Hydro is about to announce five new bio-energy demonstration projects. They include:
-- Using a heating process to convert wood chips and crop residues into a coal-like heating fuel that could be used for community heating projects and sold for export. The project will be conducted at Elie.
-- Using woody biomass to replace standard fuel oil at Tolko Industries' kraft paper mill in The Pas.
-- Converting waste wood into a combustible gas to power an engine-driven generator at Pineland Forest Nursery in Hadashville.
-- Converting livestock manure into an enhanced fertilizer as well as a biogas for heat and power. The project will take place at a dairy farm near Winkler.
-- Another project involving waste wood will be conducted at the Spruce Products Ltd. lumber plant in Swan River.