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Keeping the lights on at Elmira biogas plant

There have been some changes related to the COVID-19 situation, but the biogas plant in Elmira continues to operate largely as normal. [Submitted]

With much of the province shut down, demand for electricity has dropped, but it’s business as usual for the biogas plant in Elmira. Or as close to normal as can be expected at this point.

That’s good news for Woolwich Bio-En president Chuck Martin, as a large interruption in the operation that would force the facility to close would have some big consequences: the digester that converts organic waste into fuel could take months to get back up to speed in the event of a shutdown.

The potential for disruption exists. There’s a chance the flow of materials could be interrupted, leaving the plant without the organics it needs. And, with demand dropping, there’s a risk the electricity it generates wouldn’t be needed for the time being.

Neither is likely at this point, but Bio-En is looking at all contingencies, said Martin.

“So far we’re doing fine.  We’re actually fairly busy,” he said, noting that, like other employers, the company has made some changes to the operation to keep employees safe.

A loss in some commercial waste streams such as those from restaurants has been made up with an increase from the municipal side, along with an increase in industrial material as some manufacturers look to build up stock due to uncertainty, he explained.

“We’re seeing a surge in the organics bin,” said Martin, noting the company has received calls from each of its municipal customers to take extra loads of organics. “We’re doing what we can.”

With people spending more time at home, they’re generating more food waste and other organic materials, offsetting the materials that would normally come from restaurants.

In that regard, there are some concerns about municipalities scrapping the green bin in favour of sending materials to landfill in order to cut costs, but there’s been no sign of that thus far.

It’s likely the waste processing side will carry on, he predicted.

On the electricity side, demand has dropped, meaning the province could make changes with suppliers such as the biogas plant.

Waterloo North Hydro reports it saw a 9.7 per cent decrease in average usage last week compared to the same week in 2019. The weekly daily average from March 23-29 was 3,468,358.55 kWh consumed. The weekly daily average for the same week in 2019 was 3,843,016 kWh consumed, said Jeff Quint, the utility’s manager, energy efficiency and corporate communications.

Given that the electricity costs are essentially a flow-through component for WNH, the lower demand and provincial suspension of time-of-use billing – all usage is being charged at the off-peak rate of 10.1 cents per kWh – are thus far having little impact on the company’s budget, he added.

Even with the changes in the electricity market, the Elmira operation is fairly small, generating the equivalent of two giant windmills operating at full capacity, or six windmills given that such devices typically run at about 33 per cent of capacity. The biogas facility has the added bonus of dealing with materials that would otherwise go to landfill, said Martin.

The Elmira facility generates about 2.8 megawatts of power. Average hourly demand in Ontario on Tuesday afternoon was 15,028 mW, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO). Of that, 10,085 mW was supplied by nuclear power, 4,934 mW from hydro, 1,476 wW from gas-fired plants, 442 mW from wind, 118 mW from solar and 76 mW from biofuel plants such as the operation in Elmira.

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