Canada, Renewables and the Courtroom Wallah

March 5, 2013 |

trulygreenTake some process heat and steam and CO2 from an ethanol plant — add a greenhouse, then stir and bake — what do you get?

A whole bunch of healthy food, and fuel, and you get to see what Canadians look like when they get animated.

It was one of the those mornings when the weather had gone so apocalyptic that even the massive national flags that adorn auto dealerships were flapping stiffly in the Force 7 winds, and it was cold enough that you start to wonder what actually happens if you begin to breathe liquid air.

Now, truth be told, I live in Florida, and anything under 70 fahrenheit sends us directly to the sweater drawer. But, yikes, it’s cold.

On a morning like this — you expect people to be renting their clothes in Old Testament style, wailing mournfully, and offering up fatted calves and spring lambs to placate the heavens and bring on a change of temperature.

So I was surprised to see people quietly occupied at the breakfast buffet, vexed over nothing any more troubling then a choice between the cantaloupe and the rock melon. Mildly observing that the coffee was, perhaps, not quite up to the, shall we say, accepted international quality standard.

But then I realize — this is Canada, and it’s a renewables conference. Everyone is so polite and low-key here. I can only imagine how it might have gone had Canadians, instead of the Visigoths, sacked Imperial Rome.

“Um, pardon me your imperial highness, could you lean just a little to the left, whoops a daisy, yes just a little to the left there. That way I can sort of snatch the, er, imperial gold, and I’ll be through here in a jiffy.”

So, just as I have readjusted my expectations on noise and animation, I hear quite a hub-bub coming from Salon B.

It occurs to me that must be the room where they have locked in all the unruly Americans. So I drift over that way to see what untoward disruptions my fellow Yankee Doodles are causing now.

surgeonerIt turns out, of course, that what you have in Salon B is the irrepressible Gordon Surgeonor doing that thing that he does, which is to rouse a crowd of Canadians with his entertaining speaking style and barrelful of quotes and one-liners.

If you haven’t met him before, Gord is president of the Ontario Agri-Food Technologies non-profit group, which provides leadership and coordination in utilizing technology to generate wealth and sustainability for the agricultural and food industries of Ontario.

But you could work up a real sweat trying to think of a committee or trade group he hasn’t had some kind of activity with over the years in Canadian agriculture and academia.

He’s no rabble-rouser, but in his sly way, I swear you could give him a topic like “Prove that the Seattle Mariners are the greatest franchise in the history of baseball” and within 30 minutes or so he would have a group of Quaker clerics shouting “Ichiro! Randy Johnson! Ken Griffey, Jr!” and ready to tear down Fenway Park with their bare hands.

This morning he’s had a much easier time of it. He was at the Green Rural Opportunities (GRO) Summit in London, Ontario — taking on the topic of using conventional ethanol plants as a base for the transformation of Ontario’s Bioeconomy.

He begins with a truism right out of the real estate playbook. “You’ll never build a shopping plaza, anywhere, unless you have an anchor tenant — and if you want to build Canada’s bioeconomy, you’re going to have to build it one business at a time and every one of those businesses is going to have to make business sense. The best anchor tenant you can start with is an ethanol plant.”

From there, he gets into a two-minute riff which would have made an impressive contribution to the Digest’s Bioenergy Project of the Future series — pointing out the grower relations, the infrastructure, the established business, and the multiple product and residue stream that a modern ethanol plant represents.

Then, you get the zinger adapted from the stockpile of Ronald Reagan, “Change rarely comes because we saw the light, it comes because we felt the heat” — as he goes into the reasons why economies are changing, and should change, and must change. And why making more from an ethanol plant than just ethanol and distillers grains is in keeping with the spirit of the times.

Co-locate, bolt-on and retrofit — there’s the theme. The decibel level amongst this innately conservative audience of Canadians begins to swell into what used to be called, on the Perry Mason set, the “courtroom wallah.”

You know the sound – when Perry Mason would really tear into some poor slob out of Actor’s Equity with the damning revelation and the finger wag and the accusation of guilt, and from the extras packing the courtroom seats you’d hear that low rumbling “wallah, wallah, wallah”.

So it’s lively now. But lively with a point.

Because what Gord wants to occupy your attention with this morning is a description of the Truly Green Farms greenhouse project in Ontario. If you haven’t heard of it yet — well, it is well worth a look. It’s a partnership between Greenfield Ethanol and Cedarline Greenhouses.

“Ontario is investing $3.2M in Truly Green Farms,” said Surgeoner, “though the greenhouse project will cost up to $70 million when all is said and done. It’s 100 acres phase one, 220 in all.

“It’s situated across from a Greenfield Ethanol plant, and uses Greenfield’s steam and process heat to heat the greenhouse, and uses the CO2 from ethanol production to produce a 20% yield pop with tomatoes, sweet peppers and cucumbers. In all, there’s 135 million kilos of tomatoes, 40 million kilos of peppers, and 216 million kilos of cucumber. The main co-product stream is oxygen, and no one ever complained about that!

“Previously, growers had to compress and ship CO2 or even make CO2 as well as process heat via combustion.”

That’s just like Gord. Take the food vs fuel dilemma and stand it on its head — showing you that the route to a pretty good business in making high-value, healthy foods goes right through the ethanol plant.

“A healthier environment, healthier economy, healthier people,” he notes — from a move towards integrated systems, and integration based on clusters of companies working symbiotically together — to use a six-syllable adjective that Gord would never use.

“Hunger is a distribution of wealth issue, not a production issue,” he adds. “It’s more about infrastructure, and poverty, and governance, than it is about production. Throwing cheap food into poor countries, all you do is further distress their internal food production.”

To make his case for the benefits of ethanol plants in the Ontarian economy, he rattles off the figures.

6 plants built, $700M invested, using 100M bushels of corn. Provided a payback of $9B over 25 years, $52M per year in added Ontario tax revenue, plus rural employment in distressed areas, plus industrial platform for next gen.

Up comes the slide with the figures, in millions of dollars realized from Ontario’s investment in ethanol, which cost the taxpayer $62 million in 2011/12.

Economic impact

Construction  Opex Present value add, over 25 years
Economy 1043 977 9060
Muni tax 49 7 122
Provincial tax 239 53 1024
Federal tax 330 54 1083

Next, comes his zinger on the impact of ethanol on food prices. He notes that the inflation rate in 2011-12 was 1.7 percent — and concedes that the food inflation rate was 1.8 percent. But then he points out that the inflation rate on food eaten at home was only 1.3 percent. It was take-away food that did the damage — with a 2.5 percent increase.

Fast-food. Hmm. Aren’t we supposed to be eating less of that?

And there, in a nutshell, is his case. Ethanol plants are an agent for positive change — not only in providing alcohol fuel but in providing a base for future good ideas — accessing infrastructure, inputs and investment from the ethanol base. Isn’t that what a good industrial symbiosis is all about – adding one good business at a time, using the co-products of the one as the inputs of the other.

You’d think that everyone would see it. But as Gord aptly quotes John Shedd in winding down his presentation, “Opportunities are seldom labeled.”

Of course he might have used another chestnut from Shedd’s quarry of wise sayings:

“When there is an original sound in the world, it makes a hundred echoes.”

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