The first-ever North American zoo biogas plant is set to cover one and a half acres of the Toronto zoo's land and will be located at the current compose facility on the east side of Meadowvale Road where the zoo composts all of its animal manure.

Turning poop into power

$5.4 million dollar project: first North American biogas plant to be built at Toronto Zoo

It’s a touchy subject, not easily tolerated by many. And when thought about or mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind about feces or manure is that it needs to be thrown away and disregarded immediately.

But for Daniel Bida, executive director of ZooShare Biogas, organic waste has a real value.

“It’s really a resource that right now is wasted,” Bida said.

In partnership with the Toronto Zoo, the non-profit renewable energy co-op is developing a 500 kilowatt biogas plant that will turn animal waste into electricity. In addition to the annual 5,000 tonnes of zoo poo, ZooShare will also take 14,000 tonnes of food waste from local grocery stores, turning it into power, heat and fertilizer.

Bida said the process of converting manure into power works “like a big concrete stomach.”

The illustration shows how the digester works like a "cow's stomach" as explained by Daniel Bida. Food waste and animal poo is heated into the concrete tank by using carbon dioxide for a period of 50 days, after which a renewable and odour-free biogas comes out as power, heat, and fertilizer.
The illustration shows how the digester works like a “cow’s stomach,” as explained by Daniel Bida. Food and animal waste are heated into the concrete tank by using carbon dioxide for a period of 50 days, after which a renewable and odour-free biogas comes out as power, heat and fertilizer. (Courtesy of ZooShare Biogas Co-Operative)

“Technically it’s called an anaerobic digester,” Bida said. “It’s really just a big concrete tank and inside this tank there are mixers and it’s kept at 38 degrees Celsius which is the same temperature as the cow’s stomach.”

The manure and food waste will then be put inside, where it’ll be constantly stirred. Over a period of 50 days, the organic waste will produce enough biogas to run the generators which will create electricity.

Estimated to cost $5.4 million, the first North American zoo biogas facility is to be financed through community bond sales to ZooShare members paying seven per cent annual interest return over a seven year period. Of the total money, $755,000 has already been raised but, for construction to start, $2 million is still needed.

“In addition to raising this money, we are likely going to also secure some construction financing because we don’t know for sure if we’ll be able to raise the $5 million in time to start construction,” Bida said. “So we’ll continue to sell bonds and then the bonds that we start to sell after construction has begun, will be used to repay that construction.”

Construction is scheduled for July 2014, which could make the biogas plant operational by December of the same year. It’ll consist of input and output tanks, an engine room and a classroom taking up one and a half acres of the zoo’s land.

“It’s going at the current compose facility at the east side of Meadowvale Road as a piece of land where they compose all of their manure,” Bida said.

As noted on the ZooShare website, the revenue is to come from three different sources: tipping fees for accepting food waste from GTA-based grocery stores, power sold to the Ontario Power Authority at 0.17 cents per kilowatt hour for a 20 year contract and through the sale of fertilizer at local garden centres.

The 500-kilowatt plant will provide enough electricity to power over 250 households as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12,000 tonnes which is the equal of removing 2,100 cars off the road.

Despite its environmental and community benefits however, biogas plants aren’t that common.

“There are probably somewhere around 200 biogas plants up and running around North America and the primary reason for it not being as popular — with all the organic waste we make — is economics,” Bida said. “It doesn’t always make economic sense to generate electricity from organic waste unless you have a good jurisdiction that’s committed to growing its renewable energy production like here in Ontario.”

Each year,10 per cent of the project’s earnings are to go into the zoo.

On their collaboration, Bida said it felt natural to work together because the Toronto Zoo has an excellent marketing platform for the community bonds it sells.

For manager of financial services at the Toronto Zoo, Paul Whittam, this is a big step toward the zoo’s future.

“It’s a project that we’ve worked on together for quite some time and it ties in quite well with our conservation and education mandate, so we’re very pleased about the biogas facility being here,” Whittam said.

Whittam said the zoo previously looked into other biogas opportunities, but they were all unsuccessful until ZooShare approached them separately for the contract.

“It’s a three-part contract in that the land is owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority,” Whittam said. “The lands are managed by the Board of Management of the Toronto zoo and now they are going to be on grounds with ZooShare for 20 years to use for the purposes of a biogas facility.”

According to Bida, numerous economic studies have shown when profits are returned to individuals in a local area and they spend that money in the local area, the multiplier effect is much greater than if they consume electricity that’s produced by multinational companies.

“What we are really hoping to do is just make a very positive environmental economic impact in the local community and by making it a community-owned power project, the profits we earn are returned to the individuals who live around the plant,” Bida said.