Biofuel plant diversifies into new markets

Company shifts gears to target specialty markets as carbon pricing moves toward renewable and alternate fuels

UNITY, Sask. — North West Bio-Energy Ltd. is moving more into specialty alcohol markets after expanding its ethanol facility two years ago.

Chief Executive Officer Jason Skinner said the plant is selling a range of higher grades of alcohol since it added distillation capacity.

“When we make fuel alcohol, it’s probably the lowest grade of alcohol you can manufacture,” he said during a facility tour.

“We’re seeing ourselves diversify into a lot of different markets both domestic as well as overseas.”

The grades range from industrial to potable alcohol and they are used in products as diverse as windshield wiper fluid, hand sanitizer and fortified wines.

It leaves Unity in truck tankers or is put into drums and loaded into containers.

Skinner said alcohol is a commodity on the world market that trades similarly to grain.

The new markets offer ways for the company to add shareholder value.

The bio-energy business grew out of North West Terminal, which began operating in 1996 after two years of construction.

Subsequent expansions included doubling the rail car siding from 50 to 100 cars in 1999 and then to 150 in 2014, doubling storage space in 2000 to 2.5 million bushels, and adding larger, high-speed cleaners in 2001 for the pulse business. NWT also is a co-owner of Alliance Grain Terminal in Vancouver.

The decision to build the 25-million-litre ethanol plant was made in 2005 and production began in 2009.

“There was a real move in North America to move into alternative energies,” Skinner said.

Governments had incentive programs to encourage development of ethanol and biodiesel.

The plant could also produce about 25,000 tonnes of dried distillers grain for livestock feed each year, leading to more value for shareholders, he said.

There are about 1,000 shareholders and 90 to 95 percent are area farmers.

Ethanol facilities are able to use lower quality wheat, and the 2016 crop certainly provided the feedstock.

The late, wet harvest and 10 percent of crop left out over winter resulted in feed grade wheat.

“Through forward buying, we’ve covered our production all the way out to the next harvest with spring purchased grain,” Skinner said.

High-fusarium durum was also moving through the ethanol plant.

Skinner said every batch of ethanol is tested for mycotoxins produced by the fungus that causes fusarium.

“Our process actually destroys most of the DON,” he said, referring to deoxynivalenol.

That process is a “trade secret,” he added.

“We’re curious, too, why the other plants haven’t figured out how to do this,” he said. “We’ve actually kept it pretty quiet that we’re able to utilize this stuff and it’s been working good for us.”

He also said staff have been careful to monitor the DDG coming out of the durum to be sure it is safe for livestock feed.

NWT also prides itself on its energy efficiency. Skinner said both heat and water are recycled.

“Efficiency is important in a bioproducts plant both in terms of energy as well as water consumption,” he said. “Any process water gets reused. You still get some water that needs to be dealt with, that would be blow-down from your (reverse osmosis) systems and your boilers and your cooling towers.

“That type of water, we have a water recycling system we use to capture back pretty close to 80 percent of it and use it in our plant.”

Alcohol manufacturing uses a lot of heat, and there are steam flash drums and heat exchangers that allow that heat to be reused, he said.

There are debates about the net energy balance of the ethanol process, he added.

“I think that modern plants like ours are very energy efficient and it’s a net energy gain when you’re manufacturing product,” he said.

Skinner said there is likely to be a resurrection of the interest in alternative fuels because of the carbon and carbon pricing debate. If the United States backs away from a carbon economy there could be competitive implications.

“When we’re selling extra neutral spirits and industrial alcohol we do run into alcohol produced from corn, but we also run into alcohol produced from sugar from Indian or Brazil. There’s a lot of competition out there in the world.”

The North West companies employ 55 people, 25 of them in the bioproduct plant. Both plants operate 24 hours a day seven days a week.

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