BRINSTON — A multi-million-dollar silo digester that can handle manure from about 10 dairy farms is nearing completion on Thurler Farms, southwest of Winchester. It’s the first in a planned fleet of 310 units nationwide to extract methane from most of the manure produced on Canada’s 10,000 dairy farms by 2030.
Ontario will see an initial pilot group of six digesters — three in Eastern Ontario, three in Western Ontario and valued at a combined $56.5 million — starting with the Thurler farm location. Construction on the other five should begin this year, according to Nick Thurler, co-owner of the farm and co-founder of the project owned by developing company, GET (Green Energy Trading) Corp. Thurler is the former vice-chair of Dairy Farmers of Ontario.
He expects his own digester will start shipping liquified methane in April. While Thurler could not yet disclose the other two digester locations in Eastern Ontario, he said the Western Ontario sites include: Ben and Mark Sterk’s farm in Embro; Jeff and Yvonne Van Soest’s farm north of Exeter; and Roger Boerson’s farm in Gad’s Hill.
Processing 200 tonnes of manure daily, the Thurler digester unit — with three silos capturing almost 100 % of the manure’s methane potential — will serve as the template for the rest of the fleet, Robert Thurler, (Nick’s son) told a group of visiting farmers on Feb. 14.
The Thurlers milk 450 cows and the soaring new digester has been built to accommodate the output of 1,800 animals. Liquid manure trucked-in from neighbouring farms will make up the difference.
GET Corp. expects to process 80 % of Canada’s dairy farm manure at 310 facilities by 2030 to reduce methane and appease the federal government’s “Green Agricultural Plan for Canada” and ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emission goal by 2050. That would cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 million tonnes annually — equivalent to taking 330,000 vehicles off the road — according to GET Corp. Ontario would account for 500,000 tonnes or one-third of that reduction.
Farmers participating in the program — dubbed the Sustainable Agriculture Program — will receive a truckload of digested manure in return for each load of raw manure picked up by the company operators. This processed manure, or “digestate,” is free of manure’s potent odour and is a more beneficial fertilizer in the field than raw manure, with 35 % more nutrients available to plants after spreading, Nick Thurler said.
Participating farmers will also get a share of revenues that GET Corp. earns from the sale of methane — otherwise known as Renewable Natural Gas when cleaned up for the natural gas grid. They will collect that revenue in the form of an annual dividend, Nick Thurler said. They will also get paid $4 per tonne for their manure.
The methane brewed at Thurler Farms will be cleaned and liquified on site, and transported via an 18-wheeler tanker truck to a Peterborough site for injection into Enbridge’s natural gas grid. A shipment will leave the farm every day. Unlike other digester systems that commonly rely on adding restaurant and other food waste to the manure, the GET Corp. system sticks with manure alone. More carbon credits are available if non-farm waste is kept out of the digester, and Thurler explained that the methane also commands a premium price on the green energy market if produced from manure alone.
On the incoming side, a tractor trailer load of manure will arrive at the Thurler farm daily and drive into an unloading building with garage doors on either end. Klein’s Agri Services of Winchester will transport the manure to and from farms.
GFL Environmental, a partner in the endeavour, is funding the first 6 digester units, according to Thurler. The project is not government funded but Thurler hopes the federal government will offer carbon credits.
The developers are relying on two Danish partners for their biogas expertise: Green Island and SEGES. Denmark, a leader in the biogas field, claims that commercial fertilizer use has dropped 50 % in that country without affecting crop yields, in part because of extensive use of biodigesters. Biogas now accounts for over 25 % of the gas flowing through the Danish natural gas grid. Robert Thurler suggested the 310 planned digesters could account for 5 % of Canada’s natural gas consumption.
The group of 45 farmers visiting the Thurler project as part of a “manure tour” organized by the Ontario and Professional Agri-Contractors Association seemed genuinely impressed. There were approving nods when the digestate was described as having the same consistency as finishing hog manure.
In answer to a question about taking manure from those farms with sand bedding, Robert Thurler said they were looking at adding sand filters on some of the future digesters to accommodate those producers.
Another onlooker asked if the promised reduction in carbon emissions took into account the carbon emitted to transport the manure and biogas. That tricky question got some smiles. Nick Thurler said later that the trucks might run on methane or hydrogen in future, instead of diesel.
When questioned by Richmond dairy farmer Ed Schouten about expected methane revenues, Thurler said they already had one contract offer for methane produced but conceded it wasn’t as high as the best contracts seen in the California market.
Operators of the very first Ontario dairy farm to sell methane into the Enbridge grid — Stanton Farms in the London area — told Farmers Forum last year that they get about $28 to $30 per gigajoule. A gigajoule is about 25.5 cubic meters of gas, or the amount yielded by 1.5 tonnes of manure.
Nick Thurler later confirmed for Farmers Forum that GET Corp. has one contract offer but has been talking to three potential gas buyers. He expects to get more than the $28 to $30 range because outside waste isn’t added to the manure mix and “we can’t make a go of it at that price,” he said.
For those farms hosting the actual digester units — each one worth about $10 million — the arrangement demands no investment in the project itself, similar to other green energy developments, said Jeff Van Soest, an Exeter-area dairy farmer who’s among the first group of six project sites. While Van Soest will need to convert his free-stall barn from slatted floors to alley scrapers, to ensure a constant flow of manure from his 300-head milking herd into the system, he was planning to make that change anyway.
“The people involved, they’re good people. I totally trust them,” he said of the developers. “Some of these other things weren’t for me — like solar panels and windmills — but this one, I can get behind. We’re always going to need natural gas, and we’re always going to have cow manure. It’s a win-win.” The farm won’t have the headache of operating the biodigester — that aspect is handled by a third party — and the farm will collect rent for hosting it.
“As we move forward into the future, another revenue stream is certainly something we’re not shy about,” said Van Soest, 55, who is gradually turning over farm operations to his 24- and 26-year-old sons. “We have to keep the next generation interested. They’re pretty keen as it is,” he added.