Company eyes McBride for $90 million biofuel plant

by Andru McCracken

Japanese coal power plants want torrefied pellets like these to reduce their emissions. In part because of the disaster at Fukishima nuclear power plant Japan is increasingly reliant on coal. Torrefied pellets, or bio-coal is considered more environmentally friendly than traditional coal. /STOCK PHOTO

An Edmonton-based biomass energy company say they plan to build a torrefied pellet plant in McBride. 4Leaf Corp said they are currently in negotiations to buy 197 acres of industrial land for their Robson Valley Energy Centre and expect to close the deal by end of May.

Jason Janus, chief executive officer of 4Leaf Corp said his company is responding to a growing market for torrefied pellets, specifically the Japanese market. Janus said torrefied pellets are required by Japan’s coal-fired power plants.

He said the pellets are mixed with coal to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Torrefaction is a process that removes moisture and volatile gases from biomass, typically wood, and it leaves something like coal. Biomass, in this case wood, is heated to between 200 and 300 degrees celcius in the absence of oxygen. The resulting blackened material is called biochar or sometimes bio-coal. There is currently only one torrefied pellet plant in Canada, in Quebec.

Janus said with the land deal set to take place, he’s now working on construction financing.

“Demand is far outstripping supply. The use of biomass as a fuel is growing and [the use of] torrefied pellets is growing too,” he said.

He said a single Japanese utility company is looking for more than double the amount of pellets his plant could produce.

“Fibre supply is always the limiting factor, but the advantage we have is we can use everything,” said Janus.

When asked how confident he was that construction would start in the following year, Janus said 85%.

“Construction financing is well underway,” he said.”We’re still on track to finalize the land deal by the end of the month. I’m looking forward to that being completed,” he said.

Janus is aware of the legacy of ecoTECH, a high-profile aquaponics project deemed job creator in McBride that didn’t materialize.

“That’s one of the reasons we kept things on the QT. We wanted to make sure we had our ducks in a row.”

The company has partnered with KPE Resource Management Ltd., a fibre and biomass supply company operating in B.C.

Janus said that for now the project is being funded by private placement, small-scale institutional lending.

“The remaining 95% is going to be large scale institutional, large investment banks and private equity coming out of Toronto and New York.”

He estimates the whole facility will cost about $90 million to build.

If the project seems simple, it’s not.

While McBride has a lot going for it, cheap industrial land, access to vast amounts of wood fibre, 4Leaf Corp needs to build a lot to make the project happen.

He said they will have to generate their own electricity because BC Hydro can’t provide them with the power they will need.

As a result, they will build their own biomass power plant.

“Just small for our own needs,” he said. “The basic scenario is that the big revenue generator is the pellet mill. It buys the feedstock for the whole facility. In return, there is free feedstock for the power plant.”

Waste heat from the power plant will go to greenhouses for growing tree seedlings, and growing trees will offset their silviculture costs, said Janus.

There are also plans to take over an existing post and rail mill and develop a mill for large wood 19 inches and larger. The least good material would fuel the power plant; the next level of waste would be turned into pellets; better wood would be turned into either timbers or post and rail.

Janus said another attraction to the valley is an underemployed well-trained workforce.

“So many people who have moved to Alberta would love to come back if there was something to come back to,” he said.

“Our goal is to be a good corporate neighbour (and) ultimately make better use of the profile of biomass that is out there,” he said.

McBride’s Community Forest Manager Gene Runtz said he knows about the company and their plans and is hopeful things will pan out.

“As far as we know it’s legitimate,” he said. “I’ve assisted them for quite a few years.”

“There are some really good people working on it.”

Runtz said the impact of the plant would change forestry in the valley because it makes a lot of wood that isn’t currently useful valuable.

“There is a huge amount of waste [with current forest practices],” he said.

Runtz said there is an underlayer in the forest that is often damaged during logging, and left on the forest floor by current logging operations.

“When you try to log these things you can’t protect that stuff [in the understory]; it is too tall and spindly,” he said.

Runtz said the community forest is working on an inventory that will show how much fibre is available for use for operations like 4 Leaf Corp.

“We are sitting on so much waste fuel,” he said. “There are junk stands of cedar and hemlock, but they are not junk for torrefied pellet plants.”

Economic Development Officer Karen Dube was contacted for comment, but said she couldn’t speak to it at the time.