By Andrew Heck
Lowering emissions in animal agriculture is not only eco-conscious but potentially cost-efficient, if done strategically.
‘Cogeneration’ or ‘combined heat and power’ (CHP), is the use of a prime mover engine to generate electricity and heat at the same time, using a feedstock energy source like natural gas, methane or biogas. Such technologies are becoming increasingly popular not only for heating and powering large commercial and industrial buildings but also farms.
Alberta Hutterite colony implements CHP
In August 2019, Hartland Colony near Bashaw, Alberta – about 130 kilometres southeast of Edmonton – purchased a CHP unit in a bid to offset on-farm carbon emissions and costs, primarily aimed at the farm’s 650-sow, farrow-to-finish hog operation, crop production and canola crushing plant. Representatives from Hartland travelled to Germany to scout out potential products, then a Canadian partner was recruited to help broker a deal.
The CHP unit – manufactured by TEDOM, in Czechia – initially cost more than $600,000 all-in, from purchase to delivery to installation. Earlier this year, the capital cost was considered completely recovered, slightly quicker than anticipated, and well before the machine’s useful life expires. It is estimated to be running for another decade, at the bare minimum.
“At this point, the machine has more than paid for itself,” said Chris Waldner, Hartland’s electrician, who monitors the CHP unit. “We’re running at 100 per cent capacity, all day, all night, and we’re now even putting excess electricity back into the grid.”
Initially, the unit was operating at around 85 per cent capacity, based on need, but starting in mid-2020, the colony was offered a new contract by its utility supplier to be credited for unused electricity, particularly in winter, when demand is lower.
“We do as much maintenance on it ourselves as possible, and we’ve found that the manufacturer’s recommendations for frequency are very generous,” said Waldner. “In fact, we’ve had no major issues with it. The first scheduled major overhaul was at 20,000 hours of operation, but we’re now close to 30,000 hours, and it hasn’t been necessary.”
While electrical generation is the primary function of CHP, the secondary benefit, recovered heat, has plenty of applications as well. In winter, while hog barn ventilation is restricted, the heat is used to maintain temperatures in the barn and on other parts of the farm using a centralized loop. Year-round, even with higher summer temperatures, recovered heat continues to be pumped into the farm’s canola crushing plant, which provides canola oil and meal for use in the hog operation but also brings in additional revenue through external sales.
“About 50 per cent of the heat generated by the machine is recovered and used,” said Waldner. “When you crush canola, it needs to be about 30 degrees-Celsius, so using the recovered heat prevents us from needing to burn gas that would otherwise generate that heat.”
By all accounts, Hartland’s CHP experience so far has been even better than anticipated. So much so that the colony has since ordered an additional unit, even larger than the previous one. The new unit is expected to come online very soon.
“It’s bigger, it’s made in North America, and we have dedicated local tech support,” said Waldner. “That was important to us, weighing against other available options.”
The plan is to run the new, higher-capacity unit at whatever level is necessary to meet the colony’s needs, with the older, lower-capacity unit reserved for times of increased demand, such as harvest, since grain dryers can be a significant power drain. By running the larger unit around 90 per cent capacity most of the time, rather than both units at 40 or 50 per cent concurrently, unnecessary stops and starts can be avoided.
“The need changes based on time of day and time of year,” said Waldner. “The nice thing about having two units is that we benefit even more from keeping the power on-farm versus simply getting credited when we have too much. It saves even more money and is even more environmentally friendly.”
Finding the right fit for the future
Hartland’s new unit was manufactured by Missouri-based Martin Energy Group. The company supplies a range of products in addition to CHP, such as micro-grids and anaerobic digesters – commonly used to process manure for electricity. So far, in Canada, they have worked with greenhouses in Alberta and Ontario, but hogs represent a new venture north of the border.
“We typically build larger-scale units suited to industrial operations, but Hartland was ambitious and wanted to see what options we could provide,” said Kevin Roher, Sales Manager, Martin Energy Group. “They were very clear on what they were looking for in terms of technology that was customized for their farm and able to be serviced and supplied easily.”
The price tag on the new unit was close to $750,000 and, like the older unit, that initial investment is expected to be recovered in a fraction of the time that the technology will be operable. At best, Hartland is expecting to pay off the unit in three to four years, and at worst, in six to seven. While lower energy prices are generally preferrable, the trend of higher prices equals bigger savings in the short-term. Whether prices stay high or drop lower, the farm is well-situated to make the most of the market rates.
“These units have served us very well so far, and we’re excited to share the news with other operations,” said Waldner. “To us, this makes a lot of sense, and it might make sense for them, too.”
According to Roher, Hartland’s pace-setting example has led to further business for Martin Energy Group, as two additional Hutterite colonies in Alberta are actively purchasing CHP units through the supplier.
“It’s been great for all of us,” said Roher. “Hartland has been an excellent client, and we appreciate their straightforward, honest approach.”
Supporting farmers’ transition to clean tech
With technologies like CHP increasingly making their way into the hog sector, emissions reductions and cost efficiencies are becoming more readily available, assuming they are affordable in the first place. For many producers, this may not be the case without additional incentives that encourage innovative practices.
While certain funding programs are in-place on various provincial and federal levels to support the transition toward the use of clean technologies in agriculture, many of these initiatives are available only for operations that have completed an Environmental Farm Plan (EFP), offered in virtually every province under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). Creating an EFP is free and highly recommended, since it is a prerequisite for accessing most forms of government support.
As more and more producers take steps toward improving their on-farm practices, it is incumbent upon decision-makers to recognize this willingness to adapt, proactively, rather than resorting to penalties for longstanding behaviours where few, if any, other options exist.
In the case of Hartland Colony, as with many other farms across Canada, producers are willing and able to make a positive difference when it comes to environmental sustainability, but it is hugely beneficial when financial burdens are lessened, so farmers can continue producing food for Canadians and the world without needing to make costly sacrifices that could jeopardize business continuity. Successful incentivizing can even lead to self-sufficiency, which is the case with Hartland’s new CHP unit, for which no outside funding was required or received.
Environmental and financial sustainability alike can and should become the goal for all farming operations in Canada, and this is certainly possible, when the conditions are tailored to farmers’ needs. The future of food production and public trust in agriculture looks bright if experiences like Hartland’s can become the norm, rather than the exception.