By Larke Turnbull

Well, don’t thank just any cow, thank the cattle on several farms across Ontario that provide manure to produce electricity from methane gas. That electricity is fed into Ontario’s power grid.

One of those farms is Athlone Farms, owned by the Anderson family, in Perth County just a few minutes southeast of Stratford, which is producing 500 kilowatts per day – enough to power 500 houses per day.

The electricity is produced by heating and stirring manure and other organic waste for 30-90 days in an oxygen free environment. Bacteria from the manure digests the material in a huge tank and releases biogas, which is collected, cooled and cleaned before being used to run a generator which produces electricity and heat. The process is known as anaerobic – or bio – digestion.

Brian Anderson next to his biodigester at Athlone Farms. (Photo: Larke Turnbull)

The Andersons – Brian and Wendy, their daughter Heather and husband Dennis Peters, and son Alex Anderson, got involved because they wanted to help the environment. Construction at their farm began in 2012 and began operating in 2013.

There have been a few bumps along the way.

One of those bumps was contaminated organic waste brought to the farm from other sources. Sometimes the off-farm waste contained objects that would damage their equipment. Once, Wendy recalled, “We had a tree branch go through our machine that put us out of production for six to eight weeks.”

The technology they’re using is German, but conditions here aren’t quite the same. “What they process is different than what we process here,” said Brian. “They’re using more agricultural based materials like corn, or other grains, whereas here we’re using off-farm materials and manure, and the chemistry is quite different.”

It took about 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and would be the equivalent of taking 2,000 cars off the road.

“There’s been a lot more chemistry to it than we had anticipated,” said Brian. The Andersons employ a microbiologist who has a PhD in microbiology to test the chemistry in the mix.

The problems they were having eventually led to something good: the creation of Cornerstone Renewables, initially a group of 10 farmers with biodigesters who got together to look for solutions for the problems they were having. Now, Cornerstone has grown to 18 partners from Leamington to Belleville. While most are farmers, there are other larger processors as well that can take organic waste the farmers can’t handle.

Last year, Brian said, Cornerstone diverted 240,000 tonnes of material from landfills. “It took about 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and would be the equivalent of taking 2,000 cars off the road.”

The company employs a procurement agent who finds organic materials to suit the varying needs of each member of Cornerstone. “In the early days, we were going to feed mills or anyplace we thought might have materials that could go in the digester. It actually works a lot better to have one person sourcing it for all of us. Because he has a variety of places he can send it, he can tackle almost any organic source.”

“We can tailor what we’re getting to suit our needs,” said Brian.

Athlone gets everything from banana peels left from the production of banana chips to waste material from a pet food plant and fats from slaughter plants. While the Andersons aren’t licensed to accept organic waste from grocery stores and restaurants, other partners are.

Including organic waste from various sources is important, Brian said, because “the biology is sensitive. It needs a balance.”

“Some of our partners are actually working with the large municipalities on treating municipal waste,” he added. “I think some of it is teaching the municipality what they need so that they can actually build it themselves at some point.”

A group touring the biodigester at Athlone Farms. (Photo: Larke Turnbull)

The procurement agent also negotiates tipping fees for waste that will be sent to to the Cornerstone partners, fees that otherwise would have been paid to send the material to a landfill. So the tipping fees are a source of income in addition to the revenue from the electricity.

Another plus, the farmers have found, is the liquid left over as a byproduct of the bio-digestion process. It’s spread on the land as an organic fertilizer, which, it turns out, is better for the fields. “The fertilizer is much more concentrated and it’s actually changed the composition…. The odor is a lot better,” said Brian. “We’ve basically doubled our manure, so our fertilizer bill (for chemical fertilizer) has gone down, which is something we didn’t quite quantify before.”

We’ve had to make some adjustments and invent some different uses to some things to make things work, but we know that our partners are a very inventive group. I’ve been inspired by a lot of those guys.

“We’ve seen an improvement in some land that hasn’t had manure on it for a few years because it’s a distance away, but now, with the extra manure, we can send it into the City of Stratford,” Brian said with a laugh. They have 40 acres inside the eastern city limits. “We haul manure over there and the crops there have improved somewhat. Organic material is better, somewhat, than chemical. It builds up the soil.”

Another byproduct is a dry material that is used as bedding for the cattle.

Because of the bumps along the way, the Andersons appreciate the benefits of working with the Cornerstone partners.

“We’ve had to make some adjustments and invent some different uses to some things to make things work, but we know that our partners are a very inventive group. I’ve been inspired by a lot of those guys.” They also back each other up so that if one partner has mechanical problems and can’t take the waste materials for a while, another partner takes it instead, he added.

Asked if others are getting involved, Brian noted the Ontario government is not currently offering new contracts to producers of renewable energy. So another thing the Cornerstone partners can do together is lobby for change.

“Collectively we have more impact and hopefully we can influence that a little bit. It’s the right thing to be doing.”