When Rumpelstiltskin turned straw into gold in the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale, he used his magical powers and an old spinning wheel in the dungeon of a king’s castle.
When Regina-based company Prairie Clean Energy does it, it will use a proprietary processing technology and flax straw, an agricultural byproduct that’s typically considered worthless and burned in the field.
Prairie Clean Energy’s business model? Turn one man’s trash into a product that’s treasured by domestic and foreign buyers of processed biomass fuel.
“We know how effective a fuel flax straw is and we know that it’s usually wasted, so the question was: what can we do with the straw and what opportunities are there to create new revenue streams for producers and new markets for … flax straw, which right now doesn’t have any real use?” said Mark Cooper, chief executive officer of Prairie Clean Energy.
“One of the most common products that’s currently burned in biomass (energy production) is wood fibre and flax straw is a very close facsimile,” he added.
Cooper and his business partners, Trevor Thomas and David Whitrow, see a hot future in flax-based biomass fuel.
Global demand for biomass fuel is growing and biomass energy producers around the world are scrambling to find suitable new energy sources.
“There’s more than 4,000 biomass power plants in the world right now and they can’t find the fuel they need to meet demand,” said Cooper.
“They’re going out all over the world trying to find new fuel sources and as it turns out, we have one right here in Saskatchewan.”
Research suggests that each acre of flax grown in the Canadian Prairies produces roughly 0.65 tonnes of straw.
That puts total annual flax straw supplies from Western Canada in the range of 700,000 tonnes.
Because biomass energy producers have never used flax straw as a biomass fuel, one of Prairie Clean Energy’s first priorities is to get supplies of the alternative fuel source into the hands of potential users for testing and assessment.
Cooper and his partners have no reservations about flax straw’s suitability. If it is processed and dried properly, the BTUs it creates are relatively high compared to other potential fuel sources.
And Cooper’s company thinks Western Canadian farmers will be eager suppliers.
Because sales contracts with end users have yet to be finalized, pending tests and assessments, Prairie Clean Energy has not yet finalized 2020 supply contracts with western Canadian flax growers.
Instead, the company has held producer information meetings in a number of Saskatchewan communities and has signed letters of intent with flax growers.
The letters confirm the company’s interest in negotiating supply contracts as well the growers’ interest in selling their straw.
In the first year, Cooper estimates that total flax straw supplies required by the company likely won’t exceed 30,000 tonnes.
But after flax straw’s suitability has been tested and sales contracts have been established, the amount of straw required could increase quickly.
Within three years, Cooper estimates that the company will buy and process as much as 250,000 tonnes of baled flax straw annually.
The company’s first processing location will be located in the Regina area with subsequent processing locations to be established as sales increase and supply contracts are expanded into new areas.
Processing the straw will involve shredding, drying, compressing, repackaging and delivering to end users in shipping containers.
So far, the company has been talking with a number of potential users in Canada and overseas.
The company’s first sales will likely involve domestic buyers. Sales to foreign buyers will require government approvals to ensure that the processed materials are free of pests and diseases. Cooper said those approvals are in the works.
For growers, the value of a tonne of flax straw will likely be in the range of $25 to $35 per tonne, depending on whether the flax straw is baled and delivered by the producer or sold as is.
“So far, all of the results from tests have been extremely positive. We expect to be finalizing our initial sales contracts here prior to the end of September…,” said Cooper. “After that, we’ll be able to go back to our producers and finalize purchase agreements with them.”
For more information, visit the company’s website at www.prairiecleanenergy.com.