NEAR SANFORD — Two years ago, the Vermillion Hutterite Colony near Sanford faced a decision.
The coal it used to heat its 100,0000-square-foot chicken barn was being phased out by government decree due to its high greenhouse gas emissions.
So the colony could either have natural gas installed, or look for an alternative energy source.
It was quoted $450,000 for a natural gas furnace, plus a cost of $100,000 a year for the natural gas.
But behind Door No. 2 was a lesser-known technology fuelled by biomass. The generator would cost $600,000, with the colony constructing the building to house it. But the annual energy cost would be much less.
How much less? The cost has been $15,000 to $20,000 per year the first two years.
"It’s already paid for itself," said Shawn Gross, the colony supervisor of the heating system.
Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires toured the colony’s system on Tuesday and liked what she saw, especially considering the colony was burning dirty coal just two years ago. The province is looking to meet with innovative entrepreneurs and promote greener technology.
"I’m incredibly inspired and enthused about what I saw today," said Squires. "We certainly do think this is a way of the future."
The generator currently burns wood chips provided by South-East Pallet and Wood Products out of Blumenort. The wood chips would normally be waste material that rots and releases methane gas. Instead, the company mulches the waste wood and sells it for energy production, said company general manager Sjoerd Huese.
That makes the biomass system carbon-neutral. Power using biomass still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but those ill effects are neutralized by the elimination of methane gas the waste wood would have released.
The generators can produce energy out of corn, cattails, chicken manure and other vegetative waste materials. One colony is using cattail for some of its biomass energy.
Gross said his colony could use chicken manure from its barn to produce energy, but it’s more cost-effective to spread it on fields as fertilizer and buy the wood chips.
The biomass generators are made by SCW (Sturgeon Creek Welding) Manufacturing, a Hutterite business on the Sturgeon Creek colony just outside Headingley. A representative of the company could not be present for Tuesday’s tour.
However, promotion of the company’s biomass-generation systems is run by Triple Green Energy, headed by Ray Dueck, who spent years developing biomass technology when he owned Vidir Machine Inc. in Morris.
Dueck said about 20 of the generators have been sold in Manitoba, and 120 across North America.
Most of the generators in Manitoba have been sold to Hutterite colonies, and six more are lined up to have systems installed. However, generators using biomass have also been installed at Vanderveen’s Greenhouse in Carman, which has four of the generators, and Providence College in Otterburne. Strawboard manufacturer Louisiana Pacific in Swan River also uses wood chips in heat generation but with another system, Triple Green officials said.
Dueck said biomass could power other large farms, first nations, and public buildings like schools. Prairie Rose School Division is putting in a tender for one of the biomass units to heat the school in Ste. Eustache, and could put it into more schools, said Triple Green spokesman Ian Bank.
Dueck maintained biomass could be used to power both heat and power for Headingley Correctional Centre. The extra cost for a generator is typically recouped within three to five years from lower energy costs, the company said. A screening system filters out 95 per cent of the particulate. In fact, no visible smoke is released from the Vermillion colony’s furnace.
Shawn Gross, who is in charge of the biomass generator on the Vermillion colony, said the colony goes through about 25 tonnes of wood chips a week during peak winter temperatures. The colony only heats its barn with biomass currently. Its homes are heated with a geothermal system.
Gross said carbon credits would make the technology even more attractive to users.
Squires said the government is still putting together its system of credits.
"We are at the very early stages of setting up our system of performance credits and trading credits. So this was a really good opportunity to learn a little bit about this system," she said.