Waste not, want not. That adage has a 21st-century twist here, where tonnes of sewage sludge are being converted into a renewable natural gas that promises to become a cash crop for this city.
The three tanks on the city's southern outskirts look like squat versions of the agricultural silos that dot this farming region. In fact, they are anaerobic digesters that process solids at the waste-water treatment plant.
It's a closed-loop, energy selfsufficient system that is unique to Quebec, rare in North America, and said to be saving the city more than a $1 million a year in waste-treatment costs. The modest-looking facility has become something of a mecca for folks interested in seeing the future of waste treatment.
"At last count, we have had about 850 visitors since operations started up in January 2010," Pierre Mathieu, head of the city's water-treatment division, said this week.
There has been a delegation from Gabon, representatives from municipalities and businesses in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, provincial officials, and college and university students.
Interest is particularly high in Quebec, where almost $650 million is available in federal, provincial and municipal subsidies to divert organic waste from landfill sites to composting centres or biogas plants.
Quebec's policy that will gradually ban organic material in landfill sites by 2020 is also acting as a spur.
St. Hyacinthe's current $5-million biogas system, which was built without subsidies, is expected to pay for itself within five or six years, Mathieu says.
Before it was in place, the city was hauling 13,500 tonnes of treated sewage a year to a landfill site where "tipping fees" averaged $90 a tonne. Each round trip was about 100 kilometres.
Now they have a treatment system that creates less residual matter and supplies the biogas needed to dry the material into a "digestate" that can be used - and maybe one day sold - as an organic fertilizer.
The city is applying for government aid to add anaerobic digesters to handle organic waste from city households and area businesses.
Among the companies interested in providing organic waste to the expanded treatment centre is Saputo Inc., said Michael Brown, business development director for Bio-Méthatech, the company that supplied the first digesters and hopes to supply Phase 2.
Saputo's cheese-making facility is close enough to the treatment centre that its cheese whey can be transported underground by pipeline, Brown said.
That rich feedstock, along with organic material from the chocolate factory and similar businesses, will supercharge biogas production, Brown said.
Surplus biogas will be upgraded and injected into the natural gas distribution grid operated by Gaz Métro, Mathieu said.
The city, which has yet to get government approval for the subsidized expansion, anticipates selling between 4 million and 5 million cubic metres of biomethane per year, Mathieu said.
The price has yet to be settled but it probably would be close to the market price of natural gas, about 25 to 30 cents per cubic metre, said Frédéric Krikorian, Gaz Métro's renewable energy project manager.
Biomethane-producing municipalities may also get a "green" premium for their renewable gas, Krikorian noted.
"In Quebec, the theoretical potential for biomethane production ... is about 15 to 20 per cent of the current natural gas consumption in Quebec, which is about 200 billion cubic feet per year," he said.
St. Hyacinthe is in the happy position of being located near Gaz Métro's pipeline.
Other municipalities that don't have the option of hooking into the natural gas grid can use surplus biogas to fuel municipal vehicles.
On the island of Montreal, four organic waste processing facilities are in the works.
Current plans call for the treatment of about 230,000 tonnes of organic waste annually either through composting or anaerobic digestion. Two biogas plants are envisioned.
Municipal biogas projects such as St. Hyacinthe's point to a new era in clean energy in North America, Kurt Sorschak, CEO of Xebec Adsorption Inc., said in a recent interview.
His Blainville-based company supplied the biogasupgrading technology at the wastewater treatment centre in Escondido, Calif.
That project - the first of its kind in California - will provide energy to about 1,200 homes.
"Waste-to-energy is the next big thing in renewables," said Sorschak whose company is active in Asia and, according to Sorschak, is the only foreign company with biogas upgrading operations in China.
"We can basically produce energy without wind or without the sun shining. We just use either the organic waste, wastewater, farm waste or manure from farms. It's a huge opportunity to generate renewable energy."
Asia promises to offer the greatest opportunities for biogas upgrading, but the U.S. and Canada represent compelling markets, he said.
"In the U.S., there are 1,000 waste-water treatment facilities large enough to warrant biogas upgrading, according to Environment Protection Agency numbers," he said.
Add to that large North American landfill sites that could also have economically viable biogas operations.
In Quebec, Xebec is tracking 14 municipalities that have expressed interest in biogas projects and the company hopes - and expects - to be awarded some of the contracts.
Xebec and Gaz Métro are among the industry players who see natural gas increasingly being used as a transportation fuel.
Gaz Métro is working with Robert Transport, a Boucherville-based trucking firm that has ordered 180 liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks, with help from provincial government incentives.
The gas distributor plans to install three LNG refuelling sites along the highway corridor between Quebec City and Toronto.
"There is no renewable fuel standard for natural gas but it will come because it makes sense," said Sorschak who is positioning his company to benefit from the trend to natural gas vehicles and renewable gas through biogas upgrading.
Both Xebec and Bio-Méthatech point to Europe where anaerobic digesters are becoming commonplace.
According to one industry figure, biogas plants increased from about 300 in 2000 to more than 4,000 in 2008 in Europe.
Germany, where biogas helps feed the electricity grid, is the biogas leader.
Montreal-based Bio-Méthatech is a joint venture involving the family-owned Dominion & Grimm Inc. - suppliers of equipment to maple syrup producers - and waste management company RCI.
The company has the licence to represent and manufacture LIPP KomBio digesters, a German technology, in Canada and the Northeastern U.S.
In the past 18 months, three LIPP digesters were built in its territory - in St. Hyacinthe - while 80 were built in Italy alone, Bio-Méthatech general manager Vincent Pepin said.
"And in Germany, there is a war over waste," said Pepin, adding that waste collection territories are well-defined and regulated there.
The slogan on his business card sums up his company's expectations - and perhaps those of the blossoming Canadian waste-to-energy industry: Valuable green energy from manure.
TRANSFORMING WASTE INTO GAS
Anaerobic digestion involves the biodegradation of organic material in the absence of oxygen. Occurring naturally in nature - marshes, some animal digestive tracts - it can be reproduced in a controlled environment.
The resulting biogas is essentially methane and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be removed and the biogas upgraded to pipeline-quality biomethane.
Biogas can also be upgraded and compressed for use as a vehicle fuel as compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas, which is favoured by the long-haul trucking industry.
In the U.S., biomethane is considered a renewable energy and qualifies for some energy subsidy programs.
One cubic metre of pure biomethane is the energy equivalent of 1.15 litres of gasoline or one litre of fuel oil or diesel fuel or 10 kWh of electricity.
RENEWABLE GAS REDUCES EMISSIONS
Dena, the German Energy Agency, assessed the impact of blending renewable gas with natural gas. Within the group of fossil fuels, natural gas has the greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Dena said in the 2010 study. But adding biomethanal has a dramatic impact. Blending 20% biomethane can reduce CO2 emissions by 39% in comparison with petrol, while if pure biomethane is used, reductions of up to 97% can be achieved depending on the method of assessment used.