ONTARIO — An effort to process corn stalks into saleable methane could be in the market for 10,000 acres’ worth of Ontario corn stover bales this fall, rising to 100,000 acres by 2025 — if all goes according to plan.
Farmer-owned Ontario Biomass Producers Co-operative aims to make it happen with the help of Toronto-based Northeast Renewables LP, sponsor of a recently launched feasibility study that’s making quick progress. Co-operative President James Fisher told Farmers Forum his group expects to know by the end of June if its corporate partner — which would build and own four on-farm biogas facilities — is OK to move ahead.
“Their decision to proceed will depend a lot on what our contract would be. We’ll do our best to make it work for them,” Fisher said, explaining his organization would handle the procurement of stover bales from participating farmers.
For its part, Northeast Renewables would construct its fleet of biogas digesters — dubbed ‘Project Radius” — over four years, at a rate of one a year. The first would go up in Southwestern Ontario, with two more also slated for that end of the province. A single Eastern Ontario digester could also break ground as early as next year, according to Fisher. He said the developer would likely own the farm property at each digester location.
Bales would arrive at each site, to be pulverized with a hammermill and mixed with manure from surrounding farms in the biodigester. Over a 100-day process, the material decomposes and the resulting methane collected, cleaned and injected into the utility gas grid as renewable natural gas (RNG).
Harvesting some of the stover off corn fields that yielded at least 150 bushels per acre has been shown to be sustainable and beneficial to the next crop, according to Fisher, a hay and switchgrass farmer in the Burlington area.
The initiative “has the potential to create a new value-added market for crop residues, which currently have minimal value for producers. Removal of excess corn stover contributes to earlier emergence of the next crop,” Fisher said. He credited an OMAFRA official with introducing the Co-operative to Northeast Renewables, which sparked the endeavour.
Interested growers or custom operators are advised to email email@example.com for a chance at participating in the study or being recruited as a stover supplier.
The baling and harvesting of corn stover is not unheard of. Mushroom farms are known to use stover as a compost ingredient.
Out of 33 operational farm-based biogas systems in Ontario, only one of them — at Stanton Farms in southwestern Ontario — currently produces RNG. The other digesters burn the methane on site to make electricity exclusively — but it’s been years since the Ontario power grid allowed new entrants online.
Attention has turned to selling the methane as a mode of energy instead. Enbridge — monopoly gas distributor in Ontario — is promoting RNG to consumers willing to pay an extra $2 per month for it.
Because the field is so new in Ontario, Canadian Biogas executive director Jennifer Green couldn’t put a dollar figure on the revenue that digester owners might collect from RNG sales. However, she reported that Fortis in B.C. pays between $16 and $30 per Gigajoule of energy (a Gigajoule represents just under 27 cubic metres of gas). In Quebec, gas company Énergir pays the producer between $11 and $22 per Gigajoule.