HAMILTON — If you drive down the Burlington Skyway into Hamilton, you might notice a large globe poking out above the wastewater-treatment plant. Painted to look like the Earth, it’s the gas tank for a generation unit that has been turning wastewater sludge into a renewable energy source — biogas — for more than 15 years.
While biogas projects can be complicated to pull off, advocates say they’re good for the environment and the economy — and they’re gaining ground in Hamilton and Niagara.
Biogas is a mix of gases produced when organic matter breaks down in a low-oxygen environment through a process known as anaerobic digestion. It has typically been used to generate electricity, but newer projects are using it to produce renewable natural gas for use as fuel.
“Renewable natural gas starts from biomass,” says David Simakov, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo’s department of chemical engineering and member of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy. In this context, biomass can mean a variety of materials, including livestock manure, organic household waste, and the sludge left over when treating wastewater.
Are you appreciating this article?
Donate today to support TVO's quality journalism. As a registered charity, TVO depends on people like you to support original, in-depth reporting that matters.
“The first step,” he says, “is anaerobic digestion,” which can occur in controlled environments or more naturally in wells at landfills. After treating and purifying biogas, one can make a form of RNG. Simakov coauthored a 2018 report on upgrading biogas produced at dairy farms into RNG.
“Normally, the use of renewable natural gas is to burn it to produce electricity — basically, you clean it, you burn it, you generate electricity, you connect it to the grid, and you sell it to the grid,” Simakov says, adding that another option is “you collect it, you liquefy it, pressurize it, and then you can use it as fuel.”
Hamilton is using biogas both ways. Tom Chessman, the city’s manager of energy initiatives, is also the senior vice-president of Hamilton Renewable Power Inc., a generation company of which the City of Hamilton is the sole shareholder. HRPI was created in 2005, Chessman says, so that Hamilton could produce electricity at the Woodward Avenue Water Treatment Plant and sell it to the province as part of a 20-year contract. In addition to the 1.6-megawatt generator housed in the globe, HRPI manages two engines at the Glanbrook Landfill that use raw biogas from wells. The city sells the electricity those units generate to the province, too.
Chessman says that, about 10 years ago, the city started taking extra biogas produced at the wastewater-plant unit, turning it into RNG, and then injecting that into the natural-gas grid: “We're using the same source of raw biogas, and, on one side, we're producing the green electricity and, on the other side, we're producing the green natural gas.”
The newest biogas project in Hamilton is a partnership between Enbridge and the city to fuel a Hamilton Street Railway bus with RNG made at the StormFisher Biogas Facility in London. The partners call the bus “carbon-negative,” meaning its use diverts more carbon from the atmosphere than it burns.
Jennifer Green, executive director of the Canadian Biogas Association, says that projects such as this showcase the various uses of biogas: “We generally look at the biogas and RNG opportunity as one that is a waste-management solution, an energy solution, a climate solution, and also an economic driver.”
When thinking about future biogas projects, she adds, it’s important to keep in mind that the systems are complex. “Inherent in that,” she says, “you have to have the capacity to navigate all of the aspects of a project.”
Chessman notes that new initiatives often require new equipment, and most important, new knowledge. “It does take a little time for people to understand what the opportunity is — for the industry to mature a little bit — and to ensure there are capable contractors and consultants,” he says, adding, however, that Hamilton has gained expertise from its current projects.
“Using [biogas] for fuel is a relatively new application,” says Simakov. That process, he says, is usually more complicated than burning RNG for power, as it requires infrastructure for storage and distribution.
Quebec has mandated that all natural gas consumed in the province contain a minimum of 5 per cent RNG by 2025, but Ontario has no such target. In an emailed statement to TVO.org, the Ministry of Energy says that “a government mandate for minimum RNG content in natural gas would increase costs for consumers.”
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture tells TVO.org in an emailed statement that the government wants to make it faster and easier to develop “on-farm, energy-generating anaerobic digestion projects,” noting that consultations have produced a suite of proposed changes “that would allow farmers to expand the emerging renewable natural gas market in Ontario and make the province a North American leader in the biogas sector.”
The Ministry of the Environment tells TVO.org via email that “encouraging investments and innovative clean, renewable energy programs are part of the Ontario government’s Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help Canada meet its 2030 target.”
In October, the provincial government announced the construction of an RNG facility in Niagara Falls that it says will generate enough power from landfill gas to heat 8,750 homes. The plant is scheduled to be built by the end of the year. The same announcement noted the Ontario Energy Board had approved an application from Enbridge to sell some customers RNG through a $2 monthly fee on their gas bill.
“Renewable natural gas will … only work under an optimal set of conditions where cheaper renewable electricity is available in order to run the system of production and purification,” Simakov says. “But, in certain situations, it can definitely replace fossil natural gas.” As RNG costs more than fossil natural gas, he adds, there’s a disincentive for consumers to use it — although subsidies may help it catch on. The Ministry of Energy says “the government does not offer any funding programs to subsidize the production of RNG” but did not indicate whether it plans to add any.
HRPI is now assessing what to do when its electricity-generation contracts expire in the next few years, Chessman says: it could stay the course, lean more toward electricity or fuel generation, or try something else entirely.
“I think people are often surprised to hear all the good stuff that we're doing in Hamilton,” he says. “But I think what we do is leading edge, and I think we've benefited a lot from having these operations in place.”
Update: This article has been updated with comment from the Ministry of Energy.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.