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Canada’s new energy fields

Pyramid Farms of Leamington has been poised to expand for a number of years. It has a great product line. It has the land. It has the necessary water rights. It has the expertise and business experience after some 44 years of growing greenhouse vegetable crops.

What it didn’t have is long-term stability in heating costs.

Until now. But first a little background.

Brothers and co-owners Dean and Jason Tiessen are second-generation growers on a farm that was started by their parents in 1965. The family has grown all the major greenhouse vegetable crops over that time, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Four years ago, they began growing specialty tomatoes – heirloom, grape and romas on the vine. At the same time, they moved to lower their energy bills by switching to a biomass boiler system, an investment that paid for itself in two years thanks to significantly reduced fuel costs.

Pyramid Farms is currently spending between $4 and $5 per gigajoule for wood.

The brothers thought wood was the solution to their heating challenges. “Most of our profits over the past four years have been the savings from using biomass.”

Company’s wood fuel prices tripled in three years

Yet while wood remains cheaper than natural gas, prices are rising. Pyramid’s wood fuel prices tripled over the past three years, and quality of the fuel isn’t consistent. That uncertainty cooled their expansion fervour.

Four years ago, “we thought we had the fuel end of things solved,” says Dean. “We’ve now had to look at how we can stabilize the fuel component of our operations so that we’re not subject to those same potential increases in the future.”

The greenhouse industry has a history of chasing cheaper fuels. Heating costs have always been major expenses. In its history, for example, Pyramid Farms has used coal, bunker oil, natural gas, bunker oil again, and now biomass.

Long-term, stable fuel pricing is what’s needed. “We’ve been looking for a solution with a 15-year line of sight as it relates to our heating inputs,” says Dean, “and the only way to do that is to grow it ourselves, or have local farmers grow it.”

In 2007, Pyramid began investigating purpose-grown energy crops such as switchgrass, willow, poplar, annual crops such as hemp and sorghum, and miscanthus.

What they were looking for was something with high yields, low inputs, and excellent quality – including low moisture levels – during harvesting.

Miscanthus fit the bill. It came to the forefront because it has especially high yields and is a perennial crop that can grow for about 26 years or so. It requires very few inputs, and has moisture levels of less than 20 per cent at time of harvest.

At predicted yields, 35 acres of miscanthus would be enough to heat an acre of greenhouse for a year. “It is very efficient at sequestering carbon,” Dean notes. “It produces a lot of biomass per square metre.”

Miscanthus can grow to four metres in a season

Miscanthus, sometimes called elephant grass or E-grass, is native to Asia and is a relative of sugar cane. It can grow up to four metres in height in a growing season.

In 2007, Pyramid began looking for the best varieties. The search took them to TinPlant in Germany, a company that has been breeding miscanthus for 17 years.

The new varieties of miscanthus developed by Tinplant are the next generation of energy crops. Higher yield and cold hardiness were the main breeding objectives. These varieties have been trialed in Canada – as far as Edmonton – since 2002. “We were able to acquire the rights to their material to test and evaluate in Canada,” says Dean. “That got the ball rolling.”

In the summer of 2008, Dean established Cantus Bio Power with the Hoelk family (owners of TinPlant) to service the Canadian market. Dean is company president, working closely with TinPlant owner Frederick Hoelk.

Soon after, Dean formed BiUS Renewable Energy, a joint venture company with Bical of the U.K., to commercialize miscanthus in various markets, including the U.S. “We have the proprietary genetics, and Bical has been commercializing this crop in Europe for the past 10 years.”

Cantus is also working with other companies, including Mendel Biotechnologies of California, and Performance Plants in Canada. These companies are working to select certain genetic traits. At present, almost all the material is unimproved. “We will see things change rather quickly.”

Breeding varieties that are sterile and non-invasive

It’s important to note the miscanthus Cantus is growing is bred to be sterile and non-invasive. The plant has considerable history in this country. Some clones of miscanthus suited for nursery stock – not energy – have been in Canada for over a century.

There is considerable American and European data on the potential of miscanthus. Dean is confident it’s a winner.

“We saw this as a solution for our family farm, and we can now expand into possibly an additional 40 acres on this site. We can secure a fuel supply and move forward towards that goal.”

Miscanthus can be used for many other purposes. Dean has seen it incorporated as a potting soil mix in Germany, for example. It could be used for packaging or as a potential feedstock for cellulothic fuels like ethanol. Other uses include bio-microfibres, greenhouse hydroponic growing media, or animal bedding. It could even be a feedstock option as the Ontario Power Generation’s searches for a possible replacement of coal.

“Miscanthus has a very large germplasm.”

Utilizing miscanthus, Pyramid will be fully self-sufficient in heating by the fall of 2012, perhaps as early as 2011. By 2012, Pyramid will open the first phase of its expansion with the addition of 10 acres, a doubling of its current size.

Dean is hoping to use it in a cogen application, if he can secure the necessary approvals and access to the grid. “Our focus over the next two to three years will be on combined heat and power. “The low-hanging fruit is taking the material and burning it,” says Dean, “but we’d like to value-add this biomass by producing electricity and consuming the waste heat.”

Industry needs lower-cost energy options to expand

Canada’s greenhouse vegetable sector needs stable and lower-cost energy options if it is to expand. Currently, some growers are planting later to save on heating bills. But this has opened some traditional markets to competitors with winter production. “You can’t fault the industry for planting later, it just isn’t profitable for some growers. We need to focus on lowering energy costs.”

He is confident in the future of the crop. Miscanthus already has better economics “than the lowest energy source we currently have today.”

And in terms of economic impact, moving towards more purpose-grown crops, including miscanthus, would be great news for rural communities. The average Canadian greenhouse uses between 8,000 and 10,000 gigajoules of energy per acre each year. “This is energy that can be provided by local farmers across Canada,” says Dean. “The money will stay in the rural community.”

Accessing local fuels will significantly lessen the carbon footprint of the greenhouse industry, especially since the ash will be returned to the soil.

Governments have a role to play with their carbon policies. Consumers in northern Europe, for example, enjoy incentives in using products from purpose-grown crops. “That’s the direction those governments want to go.”

Purpose-grown crops are a win-win-win situation. They will help field producers, boost the competitiveness of the greenhouse sector, and address some environmental issues.

The country’s newest energy fields, these of purpose-grown crops, will play an important role in Canada’s drive towards energy sustainability. Pyramid Farms will be helping seed
that success.

November 30, 1999  By Dave Harrison


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