Energy Farms: Is the Time Ripe?

Biodiesel, ethanol and livestock production, wind turbines and photovoltaic installments situated in close proximity make energy—and economic—sense
By Peter Brown | January 17, 2013

The concept is that if alternate forms of energy can be produced that are nonpolluting, renewable, provide jobs and are simple to manufacture, then it is obviously a “good thing.” But a new trend is appearing based on serendipitous allocation of space around a number of possible energy sources: the idea of the “energy farm.”

There is no definition yet of an energy farm but, for the purpose of this article, we are defining it as an area where three or more forms of renewable energy producing concepts and equipment have come together with the result that different forms of energy are created for local usage or resale. In some cases, each energy project was created independently of the other with different corporations just being in the same area. In other cases, there was a personal and business relationship that led to the farm and, finally, in cases where photovoltaic panels support local electricity demand, it was part and parcel of the whole.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the ideas floating around out there. The first potential site is the St. Lawrence Seaway between Quebec and the U.S. In the little town of Varennes, Quebec,  Canada, there is an ethanol production facility, a future 200,000 ton a year (60 MMgy) biodiesel complex and Hydro Quebec has installed a large electrical research facility aimed at optimizing battery power and photovoltaic research. Enerkem and GreenField Ethanol have also announced their plan to jointly build a waste-to-fuel facility for a project that will represent “one of the first integrations between an existing, first-generation ethanol plant and a new cellulosic ethanol plant,” as further explained by Vincent Chornet, Enerkem president and CEO.

These are prime examples of what is being created in light of the insatiable demand for energy and mostly for independent, renewable energy.

First stop, Varennes, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence just east of Montreal. Here an older ethanol production facility started operation in February 2007 and has been in continuous operation since then. It uses more than 12 million bushels of corn a year and returns 120 million liters a year of ethanol as well as 120,000 tons of animal feed to the local farming community. It is situated on a major waterway with direct connections to some of the richest farmland in North America, which is probably why there was a recent attempt to build a 60 MMgy biodiesel facility within sight of the ethanol plant. The plan would have included a large hexane extraction unit to handle the canola rolling in from the Midwestern provinces by the boat and train load.

The biodiesel unit may still go through, but what is clearly going forward is one of the largest cellulosic ethanol facilities in North America based on Enerkem’s technology of converting municipal waste into ethanol, a technology that was initially created by Esteban Chornet, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke. In partnership with Greenfield Ethanol, this facility will add another 10 MMgy of ethanol and eliminate tons of municipal waste. This exclusive technology creates a syngas that is then converted to liquid fuels.

What is remarkable about Varennes is that in many ways it is a totally unremarkable bedroom community for Montreal that was chosen as Hydro Quebec’s research site for advanced research in electrical power.

In France, Brittany is another renewable energy pole probably because it has no native energy sources, is fiercely antinuclear and situated in a politically independent part of France. And yet, in the small fishing villages, the larger ports and the urban centers like Rennes, Brest and Lorient, ideas are bubbling up and taking root. Brittany is the ocean, the rough Atlantic with its legendary gales; the famous wreck of the Amoco Cadiz and its gigantic tides has long been a source of income, a challenge from Mother Nature and the indomitable spirit of the Breton sailor. No wonder that they are taking renewable energy as both a blessing and a source of regional pride. Offshore wind power is based on a revolutionary concept of floating the windmills on the ocean and sending the electricity ashore on cables that hug the bottom. The advantages are multiple, but some are unexpected. Where tests have been done, the windmills emulate the weeds and just bow down to the more destructive gales.

They are out of sight of land; one of the more irritating aspects of windmills is their sheer bulk. Finally, for some reason, fish are congregating around the sites ensuring additional revenue to a region that has legendary fishing industry. That is a world-class wind power industry, but under the ocean surface, local engineers are designing tidal and wave systems to create electricity from the constantly moving and highly predictable tides and waves.

Because of the Amoco Cadiz and the Torrey Canyon tanker disasters, all Bretons have an almost pathological hatred of over-water petroleum transportation. Both those disasters caused huge ecological damage to a region that has lived for centuries close to nature. The first renewable fuel project in Brittany is a research center for algae-based biodiesel created from the now-empty kaolin quarries outside of Lorient under the direction of Ifremer, called Safeoil. The second is a very serious effort to convert the fishing fleet to some percentage of biodiesel and the search for local feedstock has turned up the usual suspects of waste vegetable oils from the local restaurants, but more importantly, there are efforts to recuperate fish oils from the fisheries and convert that into biodiesel. At a local conference in Lorient, it was very clear that diesel fuel is perceived as a toxic chemical that should not be spread over the local fisheries and crustacean farms. Local mechanics are personally testing their fleets on mixtures of vegetable oil and ultra-low sulfur diesel.

Since Brittany is an agricultural center, we are also seeing the propagation of small-sized methanizers. One company, Odipure, is selling its farm-based methanizers all over the world. With large cattle farms and serious pig production, there are now two proposals to create biodiesel facilities in the town of Lorient. This is in spite of the recent opening of a large biodiesel production facility at Le Havre.

The situations in Quebec and Lorient are very similar, local entrepreneurs have found local solutions for energy production in the renewable sphere and created de facto energy farms based on what they know best. For Enerkem, it was chemistry. For Ifremer, it was the ocean. The model is agricultural, the ethos is agricultural and the end result has more to do with the farmer’s concept of using the land to produce a new crop. Electrawinds in Belgium may have a rather unique approach to the energy farm concept since they are a biomass, photovoltaic and, yes, wind power company with several installations under its belt in 12 countries; and they select countries with good climatological conditions (presence of wind, sun and biomass streams), major potential for renewable energy, as well as a favorable and stable investment climate. Then they go in and design ecologically pure power projects, the majority producing electricity in one way or another. They become their own energy farm with an equation that pays out in grid transfer, sales of small partnerships, fuel and technology. The company that started out as a wind energy producer created the concept of green electricity and branched into photovoltaic panels with the largest Belgian photovoltaic  site. They later perceived a business opportunity in converting waste to fuel and, hence, to electrical power.

In Mozambique, the creation of biodiesel will be part of rejuvenating a blighted economy. In Germany, where tampering with legislation on the production of biofuels has slowed production, new energy solutions are allowing biofuels to be produced from a host of new sources. And finally, there is the schizophrenic solution of Aemetis that built a biodiesel facility in India in order to sell glycerin while becoming a world leader in the research and production cellulosic ethanol in California.

The question of the energy farm becoming the norm is still to be proven, but there is an obvious move in that direction, renewable fuels imply harvesting, and that activity has always been the farmers’ mentality only raison d’être.

Mostly because the infrastructure is so hard to permit, where any biofuel system is in place we are seeing interest in adding new revenue streams that will benefit from the crushers, the waterways, the railyards and that all-important permit for the production of biofuels. On the receiving end, whether crushing soy or camelina, the end result is the same. Extracting animal feed is a cash crop for ethanol and biodiesel producers. Farm sites are often energy hogs and adding a bagasse-powered turbine is a no-brainer while installing solar panels for the office space. We noted in passing several allusions from ethanol producers interested in converting their corn oil to biodiesel.

Bottom line, there will be more areas where all renewables will be coming together and it is clear that companies like Electrawind may become much more popular going forward.

Author: Peter Brown
Principal, Euro Marketing Tools
[email protected]

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