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Biogas plan gets another public airing

Alternative energy plans are a hot topic of discussion, but a local company would be happier if the talk about its project was a little more positive.

To date, however, Woolwich Bio-En Inc.’s bid to build a cogeneration unit on Martin’s Lane in the north end of Elmira has met with resistance from nearby residents with concerns about noise and odour problems.

The project was the subject of yet another discussion Tuesday night at Woolwich council, where planning staff shifted gears and formally decided a zone change would be required to allow the facility to go ahead. It had previously deemed the project in conformity with the existing industrial zoning on the site.

Bio-En Power Inc. president Chuck Martin surveys the Elmira site where his firm proposes to build a facility to convert organic waste to electricity.
Bio-En Power Inc. president Chuck Martin surveys the Elmira site where his firm proposes to build a facility to convert organic waste to electricity.

Director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley told councillors – and a gallery filled with residents – that new information indicates this is not a dry industry, adding that the waste materials used in the process and the potential for noxious odours mean a zone change is in order.

That said, the province’s new Green Energy Act may render any council input moot, as it would in essence remove local jurisdiction over such projects, attempting to streamline the process and have more alternative energy projects in place sooner.

In a presentation to council, Bio-En Power Inc. president Chuck Martin said what his company is proposing is precisely the kind of project the province is pushing for with the act.

Bio-En’s plan is to build a cogeneration unit that would produce 2.8 megawatts of renewable electricity – enough to power 2,200 homes – and 3.4 mW of heat. The $12-million facility would be fueled by biogas created by converting organic waste to methane, which would in turn fuel a generator.

Martin challenged the township’s assessment the facility isn’t a dry industry, noting the plant would use fewer water and sewage services than a typical home.

“We do not use water as part of the industrial process,” he explained.

He called on the township to reverse its position, and to notify the Ministry of the Environment, which is currently reviewing Bio-En’s request for a certificate of approval to operate a biogas facility.

Martin also challenged some of the public comments made at a council meeting last month, where some speakers detailed past odour issues with Elmira businesses and claimed complaints went unheeded.

Taking on what he called “faulty recollection” about the history of odour problems in the town, with unfounded complaints at times, he said businesses are typically eager to solve problems rather than let them drag on.

“I do not recall any indifference,” Martin said, noting issues with his own ventures, including the pet food mill, caused many sleepless nights while the problems were tackled.

From an economic perspective, he added that all of the businesses with which people had complaints are still in operation, many of them elsewhere, however. His own company, Martin Mills, once had 350 employees in Elmira. Today there are 12.

For Coun. Mark Bauman, however, the history of problems in the town – a rendering plant, Uniroyal/Chemtura, the pet food plant and the like – are reason enough to scrutinize this project.

“Residents are entitled to be skeptical about smelly operations,” he said, asking for staff to review five areas of concern he would like to see more information about: noise, odours, traffic, fire plans and zoning conformity.

Acknowledging the history, Martin said in an interview that the key is education, letting people know these kind of anaerobic digester plants commonly operate elsewhere with few issues. A slideshow presentation to council this week included examples of plants operating in close proximity to residential neighbourhoods in several Austrian communities (the technology is Austrian, and the project is being developed with firms from that country).

Bio-En’s Earl Brubacher ran through the long history of anaerobic digesters, explaining the production of methane is a natural phenomenon.

“In the simplest form, you attach a hose to the back of a cow and collect the methane,” he said by way of analogy, adding the plant is in essence a large stomach, converting inputs to gas.

The Austrian technology uses an anaerobic digester to convert organic material into biogas and fertilizer. It will be fed by waste material, including livestock manure, food waste, used cooking oils and other fats and the like. A diesel generator converted to work with methane will generate electricity to be sold back into the grid, while steam heat produced could be sold to neighbours such as the pet food mill.

“I’m disappointed there isn’t more community support for this. It seems like the kind of thing people would embrace,” Martin said of the green energy plan.

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