One man’s trash is another man’s fuel

The Yukon could be cashing in on the thousands of tonnes of garbage it throws out each year, says Shannon Mallory. That waste could be heating our homes or fueling our cars.

The Yukon could be cashing in on the thousands of tonnes of garbage it throws out each year, says Shannon Mallory.

That waste could be heating our homes or fueling our cars.

The environmental scientist lived in Sweden for two years studying how to capture energy from food scraps, sewage and manure.

Now, back in Whitehorse, she’s championing the new energy, and gave a presentation at the Downtown Residents’ Association meeting on Tuesday night.

The biogas process, as it’s called, solves two problems at once.

It removes garbage from the landfill while creating an alternative energy source.

Not to be confused with biofuel – which refers to burning wood or other biomass products – biogas specifically refers to waste.

In Sweden, biogas makes up one per cent of the country’s energy economy.

It’s used to run fleets of municipal buses and cars, and heat and light schools, government buildings and homes.

Even rural, northerly towns rely on the gas.

In the small town of Boden – which is at the same latitude as Dawson City – biogas is used to produce electricity and run cars.

Mallory points to a picture of Boden’s small biogas plant. There’s a large silo with a big vat of warm, soupy waste inside.

Organic waste normally releases methane.

But when it’s heated and mixed, the liquid gives off a lot of methane at once, which is then piped out of the vat into a boiler or engine.

That’s when it can be used to produce electricity and heat homes.

Alternatively, the gas can be stripped of carbon dioxide creating pipeline-grade natural gas to power specially outfitted cars.

The three small towns Mallory studied in Sweden all share similarities with Whitehorse, both in the type and amount of waste they produce.

That’s why Mallory believes the Yukon has potential to make use of the fuel too, she said.

Biogas won’t immediately solve the Yukon’s energy problem but it could lessen our dependence on expensive gasoline and heating oil, she said.

The city and the territory’s Energy Solutions Centre are taking a closer look at the technology to see how it could be implemented in the Yukon.

Mallory will be looking at what would be the best use of the fuel here – whether it would be to heat homes or run cars.

That’s an important distinction that needs to be researched further, said Energy Solutions Centre director Colin McDowell.

There are differences, like the infrastructure, between the Yukon and Sweden, that need to be considered, he said.

It may not be economical now to tap into the energy source, said Mallory. But with fuel prices on the rise, it could be a boon five to 10 years down the road.

Mallory’s initial report, backed by AECOM engineering, found the city could capitalize on the more than 1,300 tonnes of food waste it already gathers from residents each year through its compost program.

It could also make use of the more than 2,500 tonnes of waste from restaurants, businesses and apartment buildings that gets tossed in the landfill, as well as nearly 21,000 tonnes of sewage sludge produced by the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Only one city in Canada now uses biogas technology, Abbotsford, BC.

A farmer there decided to experiment with the technology on his property, using food and slaughterhouse waste from nearby farmers to power his small plant.

His $4.5-million investment paid off. Chris Bush’s Catalyst Power company has been able to sell pipeline-grade fuel to BC’s Terason Fuels.

And after the methane has been siphoned from the waste, he’s left with a rich fertilizer he can spread over his crops.

Last week, Mallory visited the Abbotsford farmer.

“It was amazing to see,” she said.

A similar technology already exists in Whitehorse, in the bowels of Yukon College.

There sits an incinerator that converts garbage into energy by heating the waste to extremely hot temperatures.

But there is a striking difference between these two technologies.

With biogas, less heat is needed to release energy from the garbage – only 33 to 55 degrees Celsius versus 800 degrees. Biogas also creates a nutrient-rich byproduct, while an incinerator does not.

Squeezing energy from garbage is an age-old technology, said Mallory.

Ancient Persians noticed that rotting vegetables produced flammable gas.

Even now, rural places in China, Costa Rica and Bangladesh use low-tech methods to lift methane from waste.

They pile garbage into a ditch, cover it with plastic and then pipe the resulting methane into their homes to use as cooking fuel.

Newer technologies, such as the ones Mallory studied in Sweden, are more efficient at capturing the methane and transferring it into useable energy.

It’s not such a far-off possibility to see the same technology here in the Yukon, she said.

“We already collect (organic waste) and have a facility for it in Whitehorse,” said Mallory.

“It’s a great waste stream – it has so much energy in it.”

Contact Vivian Belik at