Waste-to-ethanol biofuels plant in Edmonton closes 11 years ahead of schedule

The Enerkem waste to to biofuels facility was set back by delays and produced a fraction of the fuel it set out to do in 2010. (Enerkem  - image credit)
The Enerkem waste to to biofuels facility was set back by delays and produced a fraction of the fuel it set out to do in 2010. (Enerkem - image credit)

A state-of-the-art biofuels plant in northeast Edmonton has shut down production, 14 years after the City of Edmonton and Enerkem Alberta Biofuels struck a deal to turn waste into ethanol.

Under the initial 25-year agreement signed in 2010, the city supplied garbage that couldn't be recycled or composted and Enerkem would use its proprietary technology to turn it into biofuels.

When it closed this week, the plant had produced five million litres of biofuels, far less than the 36 million litres a year Enerkem had projected it would generate.

On Thursday, Enerkem's executive vice president of technology and commercialization Michel Chornet said it was a bittersweet day.

"We felt we had reached our main objectives which was to demonstrate this technology at commercial scale," Chornet said in an interview with CBC News. "Now we are retiring this facility,"

The Edmonton plant was once touted as the world's first industrial-scale biofuels project to use municipal solid waste as feedstock.

The $80 million facility was projected to generate biofuels to supply over 400,000 cars per year running on a five per cent ethanol blend, the company's news release said.

Deal ends

The city says with the plant closing at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre, its agreement with Enerkem is also ending.

Enerkem's facility was built and operated at their expense and will be dismantled at their expense, said Denis Jubinville, branch manager of waste services at the City of Edmonton.

"While this innovative project did not fully achieve the desired waste diversion, we have gained important learnings that will inform future waste diversion strategies," Jubinville said in an email to CBC News this week.

The city invested about $45 million into its own refuse-derived fuel (RDF) facility that turns waste into a low-carbon fuel that can be used for energy production.

This facility is still operational and will continue to produce RDF, he added.

"The closure will not have significant impacts on the city's day-to-day waste management activities," he said.

The city doesn't plan to replace or expand the Enerkem plant but is establishing new partnerships to divert waste from landfill using waste-to-energy, Jubinville noted.

Dampened by delays

The operation encountered technical obstacles in producing ethanol and had adjusted equipment along the way.

"Each phase had some specific milestones," Chornet said. "Once they were achieved, we added more equipment on and on, so the phasing induced some delays that may have been perceived."

This week, former city councillor Ben Henderson said he was disappointed the plant didn't turn out to be a long-term solution to Edmonton's waste disposal.

"The hope was that it was going to take the majority of our non-organic non-recyclable waste and turn it into something useful."

He said if things had gone according to plan, the plant would have been running at full steam for quite a number of years already.

Edmonton impact 

"It was a difficult week," Chornet told CBC News. "We had 56 employees in Edmonton — great employees, dedicated, passionate and very professional. So my thoughts are with them."

Henderson said he is happy that the city walks away with some technological advantage.

"I would hate to see us stopping to try new things and to try new solutions," Henderson said. "If no one is prepared to do that, then we're not going to be able to make any kind of progress on what's a really significant problem with what to do with their solid waste."

Montreal-based Enerkem Inc., founded in 2000, develops and commercializes its gasification technology, transforming non-recyclable waste into biofuels, low-carbon fuels and circular chemicals for hard-to-abate sectors, including sustainable aviation and marine fuels.

The Alberta government contributed $4.5 million from its Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Regulation program, set up to help industrial facilities find innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions.