Shell takes reins in cellulose ethanol plant proposal

Shell Canada continues to investigate the feasibility of building a straw-based ethanol plant in Western Canada, but many details of the proposed project have changed.

For one thing, it will be a lot smaller than the 220 million litre plant Shell’s business partner, Iogen Corp., originally talked about building in Vegreville, Alta., or Birch Hills, Sask.

The partners had settled on building a facility at the old Domtar pulp mill site in Prince Albert, Sask., which a senior Shell official had said would be built in two stages: an 80 to 90 million litre plant and a later expansion that would increase production to 150 to 160 million litres annually.

However, that project was scrapped when Iogen couldn’t come to terms with Domtar on buying the out-of-commission pulp mill.

Portage la Prairie, Man., is the latest site being considered for what could be Canada’s first cellulose ethanol plant.

“We found a really nice straw basin just like we found in Saskatchewan, but it was a better location in terms of logistics and other things,” said Shell spokesperson Jeff Gabert.

The company has been contracting wheat and oat straw with area growers, but that doesn’t mean the project is a go.

“It’s very early stages and we want to be very clear on that because we don’t want to raise the expectations of anybody,” said Gabert.

The size of the operation is yet to be determined, but he said a rough estimate would be a 40 million litre plant.

Another big change in the project is who will own the plant. It was originally going to be an Iogen facility with financial backing from Shell, but that is no longer the case.

“We’re using Iogen technology, but this will be a 100 percent Shell project. For us that seemed the appropriate way to go moving into the future,” said Gabert.

Shell made that decision following the failed Domtar project, which didn’t proceed at an acceptable pace for the oil company.

Iogen spokesperson Lisa Hanke said the project team decided her company’s expertise is as a technology provider, while Shell’s is building projects.

“It went from being Iogen led to Shell led,” she said.

Shell is talking to people in the Portage la Prairie area about what it has dubbed the Solstice project.

Those consultations are part of a broader environmental impact assessment the province requires.

Gabert said the company will hold public open house meetings next spring to gather input on the project and hopes to make an environmental impact assessment submission next fall. It would take another two years to build the plant once the company receives a permit from the province.

Shell has identified an alternative community in Manitoba if the Portage la Prairie location falls through.

Iogen has talked about building a cellulose ethanol plant for more than a decade, yet the partners are still contemplating a location for the facility.

Gabert said that is not an unusual time frame for such a groundbreaking technology. The difference is that the Iogen project has been in the media spotlight, while most other technologies are developed behind the scenes.

“I don’t think the amount of time that it has taken surprised anybody within industry or within the project teams. It’s really just the nature of how these things go,” he said.

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