Q&A with Daniel Bida, entrepreneur behind North America’s first zoo-based biogas plant

Daily Brew

[Daniel Bida/PHOTO: ZooShare]

A zoo creates a lot of poop. From bird droppings to giraffe pellets, animals at the Toronto Zoo produce about 3,000 tonnes of solid waste every year. Its famous giant pandas alone poop upwards of a dozen times a day, thanks to their incredibly inefficient digestive systems.

But a project by ZooShare will soon give the Toronto Zoo somewhere to put all of that animal manure, and a way to make both electricity and fertilizer with it. ZooShare is building a biogas plant at the Toronto Zoo — the first zoo-based plant of its kind in North America. Manure from the zoo and organic waste from grocery stores will be fermented, and the resulting biogas will be captured and converted into energy right in Scarborough.

The ZooShare Biogas Co-operative allows people to invest in the project through the purchase of bonds with a minimum investment of $500, to pay five per cent annual interest over a five-year term. 

“The sales pitch is pretty easy because everyone loves the cool factor of being part of a groundbreaking project, something that doesn’t exist,” board chair Paul Ungerman tells Yahoo Canada News.

Through the bonds, investors and grants, ZooShare has raised more than $3 million so far towards the construction of the plant, providing the zoo with $60,000 annually.

Ground was broken on the plant’s construction on Monday, and it’s expected to be built by early 2017. Yahoo Canada News spoke to ZooShare executive director Daniel Bida about the project, how it works and his goals for education.

[Groundbreaking ceremony for the biogas plant at the Toronto Zoo on Monday./PHOTO: Frances Darwin]

Q. Can you give me an overview of your involvement with ZooShare?

I’m the executive director, so I’m pretty deeply involved in everything that’s been happening over the last five years. I’ve been leading the program from the beginning and I held the initial vision for what we tried to create. I’ve been consistently managing and working with our project partners and stakeholders and managers and investment partners from the beginning, to get to where we are at right now. 

Q. What led to that vision and inspired this project to start with?

That’s kind of a long story. I learned about biogas about seven years ago and I really couldn’t shake how powerful it seemed to me: that there was a technology available that was relatively simple, that could take what everybody called waste, get paid to receive it, convert it to energy. Then the byproduct of this process was fertilizer, which could be used to grow more food and offset the use of commercial fertilizer for farmers. It kind of seemed like one of those things that just was a win-win right off the bat. 

Right around that time I was also very much inspired by the work of the Centre for Social Innovation [in Toronto]. In making the purchase of a building, they leaned on their members and supporters as a source of financing. The Centre for Social Innovation sold bonds for these supporters to get the cash that they needed to make the purchase. 

I essentially applied the same thinking to this biogas project at the zoo, and combined my inspiration for doing something productive with waste and engaging with the people who ultimately would be most affected by it. By giving those people an opportunity to be an owner and earn a financial return from us doing something good, it really kind of added to the list of wins.

Q. Were there any particular challenges along the way that made it hard to get this off the ground, or that you didn’t anticipate?

Absolutely. There’s always challenges and one, first and foremost, that stands out to me was just the delays and the challenge as an individual to be patient. The project has definitely taken longer than I thought it would when we first pitched the zoo in October 2010 on this vision. It took a lot longer to get our feed-in tariff contract, it took a lot longer to get our approval from the [Ontario] Ministry of Environment to build and operate the facility. I just needed to be patient and wait for those things, and the challenge there was myself trying to will it forward instead of just waiting. 

Some of the other challenges have just been managing our development budget. We didn’t start this project with huge amounts of money in the bank. We’ve been supported by a couple of different grant programs as well as some early-stage investors that took a bigger chance. We had to make it work with the money that we had, and given the delays it led to some cash-flow squeezes over time.

Q. This is a unique project so far in North America. Were there other projects, either similar ones in other parts of the world or projects that operated on a similar model, that were an inspiration to you?

I should emphasize that from a technology or project development perspective, there’s really nothing overly innovative that we’re doing. The really innovative part is our financing structure and that we’re doing it at a zoo. But around Ontario there are over 30 biogas plants the same size, located on dairy farms. Instead of using zoo manure they’re using dairy manure, but the rest of the process is the same. 

An important part for me with ZooShare was really to teach people but also to emphasize how this isn’t a newfangled technology that we’ve come up with. This is something that has been used for over 200 years, and we’re buying off-the-shelf parts from companies that sell these pieces of equipment. And we’re doing it at the zoo — that’s kind of the crazy part, where we’re doing it, but taking food waste and turning it into energy is nothing new.

Q. In doing it at the zoo, what are the educational aspects that come from that?

Being at such a high-profile location where over a million people a year visit, including many school groups, gives us a great opportunity to use this project as an educational showpiece. What we are planning, and what we are already doing, is to provide educational opportunities. The first of those is we have an in-class program, which is already operating, where Grade 7 students can learn about what biogas is, how digestion works, how gas production works, and how electricity generation from gas works, as well as the value of the fertilizer. Once we’re up and running we will regularly host kids of all ages, as the expression goes, at the facility so that people can get this up close and personal look at really how valuable organic waste is and that it’s actually a resource that we need to carefully manage as oppose to flippantly throwing organic waste into the trash. If you put these things into the right bin we can make use of them and not lose the nutrients forever. 

I think back to when I was a Grade 3 or 4 student and I learned about recycling for the first time, and that’s something that’s been important to me my whole life. We’re really hoping that we can impact children the same way, have them leave our facility really understanding how important it is to properly sort your waste and make use of the resources that you have.

Q. Can you give me an overview of the science of it, how the plant works?

The best way to think about it is really like a big stomach. It’s made of concrete, it’s an oxygen-free environment, and it works just like the stomachs in our bodies do. The process is kept the same temperature as our bodies, about 38 C, and the waste is stirred around on a constant basis. And inside of our big concrete stomach are a lot of the same bacteria that you’ll find in the stomach of a rhino or a giraffe or even ourselves. So this bacteria will then covert the organic waste into biogas, which is a combination of methane and carbon dioxide. This is exactly what would happen in a landfill if you put a bunch of organic waste in there and put a bunch of garbage on top of it. The methane gets produced no matter what — except instead of it being released into the atmosphere it’s being released inside of our concrete stomach where we can harvest it, collect it and use it to generate electricity.

Q. You have a financial background. What appealed to you about the financial aspect of the project?

I’m a chartered financial analyst. It is and was something that was going to generate profits, whether that was for a typical structure of equity investors or individual bond buyers through the co-operative structure that we chose. Mainly I was attracted to this project because it gave me a much better opportunity to make an impact on the world than sitting behind a desk writing financial reports all day. This was something that had a clear value to society, by diverting organics and generating power and reducing emissions and producing fertilizer. It is a result of the feed-in tariff contract from the Ontario government, something that is financially viable. I wanted to build something great and share the opportunity with as many people possible. That was really what motivated me to start this up and keep going every day.

Q. We talked about what you hope kids take from it and the inspiration you hope the education program provides. What do you hope people like yourself may take from it when they hear about the project?

I think the primary thing is that there’s an opportunity to participate. Whether you wanted to roll up your sleeves and build a project like this yourself, it’s absolutely doable. Or if you wanted to use some of your savings to be a part owner, that’s also an opportunity for you here. You can earn a steady fixed return on your investment of 5 per cent while making an impact on the local environment for well over 30 years.

Q. Is there anything I haven’t asked you about the project, or that we might have missed?

We are raising additional bond funds right now. They pay a five-per-cent annual return for a five-year period. Our primary goals here with this project are to successfully build it, continue to operate and provide value to the zoo in the form of lease payments, provide value to our bondholders and members in the form not only of environmental improvements but also the bond, and to provide value to our grocery store partners by giving them a location right inside the city that they can process their organic waste at.

The interview was condensed and edited.