A co-operative-style company founded by Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) vice-chair Nick Thurler has taken its first step toward a goal of gaining access to 80 per cent of the country’s dairy manure for conversion into renewable natural gas (RNG).
Thurler officially launched GET Corp,– and the sustainable agriculture program that forms its centrepiece, through a video shown to attendees at the Dairy Farmers of Canada AGM in July. In a recent interview with Farmtario, the South Mountain farmer said “we’ve been holding meetings throughout the winter” with dairy farmers across Ontario “and there was a lot of interest.”
Why it matters: The project aims to increase revenues for farmers, availability of natural gas for consumers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A $56.5-million investment from a corporate partner has been secured and former DFO management team member Shikha Jain has been hired as GET Corp’s CEO.
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It wasn’t until signing the financing deal with Canadian waste repurposing specialists Green For Life (GFL) Environmental, however, that GET Corp could officially announce its plans.
Thurler says he was approached by Danish company Green Island more than a year ago about the possibility of establishing a similar network in Canada. The firm wanted to see if there was a business case but, if a subsidy was required to make it happen, they didn’t want to be part of it.
“I kind of liked that,” Thurler said of the company’s distaste for government financial support.
He learned that farm-based biodigesters have filled 50 per cent of the natural gas pipeline in Denmark with “green gas” that uses only on-farm waste for biodigester generation. This means there’s less need for purification than with gas from digesters that mix different types of municipal or food processing waste, which is referred to as “brown gas.” So, the price paid for it is higher.
The Danish company’s goal is to see 100 per cent of the country’s pipeline filled with green gas by 2035. While that goal might seem lofty, consider the goal set after Thurler and some other Canadian dairy stakeholders visited Denmark last November and agreed to explore the possibility of transferring their model to Canada.
GET Corp., which stands for Green Energy Trading Corporation, aims to build 310 biodigesters across Canada by 2030 to capture 80 per cent of the dairy manure in the country.
One digester is under construction at Thurler Farms. Meetings last winter led to commitments from five other Ontario dairy farms to host GET Corp biodigesters on the condition that off-farm financing is secured.
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“I thought we would have the foundations going in the ground by now,” Thurler said of the five other locations (two more in eastern Ontario and three in southwestern Ontario.) But financing was more challenging than he predicted.
“I wanted to keep the financing separate from the farms because it’s a big expense. For them, if a farm comes up for sale, they might not be able to move on that opportunity if they have their money tied up in building a biodigester.
“That’s the kind of scenario we wanted to avoid with our company.”
Thurler admitted to taking a leap of faith in putting his own farm’s money into the first biodigester, but GET Corp eventually came to terms with GFL Environmental, a Toronto-based company that has made inroads in waste management for various economic sectors, to finance the first six.
Several biogas digesters have operated in Ontario for years and one is producing biogas that is being turned into natural gas.
“It has been a tough couple of months going through the negotiations to make sure both partners would be happy,” Thurler said.
However, he’s confident the Danish model for the biodigester technology and the regionally centralized system of manure handling and processing will ensure a good return on investment, both for GFL Environmental and the country’s dairy farmers.
“These are smaller around and higher than the ones you usually see in Ontario now,” Thurler says of the technology used by Green Island. A good number of existing biodigesters in Ontario bring in other source material, he notes, but the Danish ones are designed to run most efficiently using only on-farm manure.
But the real draw for many Canadian dairy farmers, he believes, will be the aggregation of manure from various farms within a region at one centralized biodigester.
“Talking to the pipeline companies, they don’t want to buy gas from me and then go down the road and buy gas from my neighbour and buy gas from the guy next to him.”
The Danish model is to aggregate farm-source manure in single sites. Each of the biodigesters has an optimum scale of using manure from 1,800 cows, and a network of trucks hauls manure from nearby sites to the biodigester. This allows smaller-scale farms, which wouldn’t typically be large enough to support a biodigester, to add their manure to a climate-friendly solution.
Farmers are paid for the RNG based on the amount of manure they contribute, plus a cooperative-style profit share if the entire biodigester makes money. Digestate, to be used as fertilizer, is also returned to each farmer based on how much manure they provide.
Thurler has 450 cows so he needs manure from an additional 1,350 cows to have the biodigester on his site operating at optimum scale. Based on the interest expressed by farmers in his area, he doesn’t think GET Corp will have any trouble keeping the Thurler Farms facility operating at full throttle.
“It will probably amount to eight or nine farms sending manure to my farm,” he predicted. As with the Danish model, “we’re going to have a trucking company to move manure back and forth.
“GET Corp is going to make sure the digesters are full all of the time,” Thurler said in the video shown at the DFC AGM to launch the company.
There are three ways to be involved: as a participant sending manure to the biodigester and receiving digestate; as a host who also receives lease payments from GET Corp for making space for a biodigester on the farm; or as an owner of the biodigester who has an agreement with GET Corp for its full operation.
Thurler hopes to see gas flow from the biodigester on his farm by February.