An expansion-minded southern Ontario biochar company is teaming up with a group of northwestern Ontario First Nations to propose placing a renewable natural gas (RNG) and biocoal plant in the Lake Nipigon area.
CHAR Technologies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) late last month with the Lake Nipigon Forest Management Inc. (LNFMI) to joint venture on a kiln operation that will convert woody biomass and other unsaleable forest products into RNG for home heating applications and a biocarbon product for the steel industry.
If all goes according to plan, the partners are looking at a Lake Nipigon-area location and expect to have it up and running by 2025.
In an email, CHAR CEO Andrew White said they are still finalizing the partnership arrangement, which has been in the works for the last nine months.
A Nipigon-area operation would be CHAR’s third in Ontario after their anchor asset in Thorold and a second one planned for Kirkland Lake. The Thorold facility is now under construction.
The Kirkland Lake project is in the design phase with a site already picked out and negotiations underway to secure local wood fibre.
LNFMI is a forest management co-operative which holds the sustainable forest licence for the Lake Nipigon Forest, a one million-hectare Crown forest management unit. The co-operative oversees an annual harvest of 500,000 cubic metres a year that supplies fibre to mills in Northern Ontario.
The co-op is comprised of four area First Nation communities — Animbiigoo Zaagi igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek and the Red Rock Indian Band.
Under the terms of the partnership arrangement, LNFMI and CHAR would have a 51/49 per cent split, respectively, in this venture with each party appointing two directors.
By way of roles and responsibilities, LNFMI, as the forest licence holder, would be responsible for sourcing all the woody biomass. CHAR, of course, brings the technology to the table and would handle the conversion process and sales and marketing of the two products.
“Together, we will manage community engagement and regulatory approvals,” said White.
With a two-kiln operation, the company said in a news release, it can annually convert 75,000 tonnes of wood waste and residuals supplied by the LNFMI to 500,000 gigajoules of RNG and 10,000 tonnes of biocarbon.
Based on volume projects, LNFMI has 900,000 cubic metres of excess fibre to support the business case for a facility.
By way of employment opportunities, White said priority will be given to area Indigenous communities either working at the facility or in supply chain jobs, said White. CHAR expects the facility will create 10 full-time jobs. On the biomass harvesting side, that’ll be determined by LNFMI.
The price tag to build a facility from scratch, on a greenfield site with no infrastructure or assets, is estimated at $48 million, White said.
The Lake Nipigon facility would be scalable, based on market demand. And since these kilns are modular in design, they can be deployed quickly.
In a news release, LNFMI president Theresa Nelson was excited for the future.
“This opportunity will provide employment for the memberships of the four First Nation partners, as well as a steady, yearly revenue stream for the continual development of our communities. It will also find a home for wood waste and residues from the Lake Nipigon Forest, ensuring an environmentally sustainable solution for the region as a whole.”
White said they expect to have signed off-take agreements with customers for the RNG and biocarbon products in place long before construction starts in the Lake Nipigon area.
Potential consumers of the gas, White confirmed, is the mining industry in northwestern Ontario.
“We are speaking to multiple mining operations on how they could apply our decarbonization biofuels and bioproducts without disrupting their day-to-day operations.”
Northern Ontario is an area of focus for CHAR due to its abundance of woody biomass, a feed constraint for its Thorold location on the Niagara Peninsula.
The company made the move last year from a small demonstration-scale space in London to Thorold with the help of $12.8 million in federal and provincial funding to set up shop in a former pulp and paper mill on the Welland Canal. That facility is under construction.
With its proprietary high-temparture pyrolysis (HTP) process, CHAR takes woody material, such as forest biomass, bark and old wood pallets, along with organic waste, and converts it into two products, a renewable natural gas (RNG) for home heating and a biocoal, the latter of which can be used as an environmentally friendly alternative to coal in the steelmaking industry.
The HTP is a closed loop system. The kilns runs off their own energy in producing the gas and carbon products. No emissions, no odour.
The company has been supported by Canadian steel producers on the carbon product since 2016. Arcelor-Dofasco in nearby Hamilton, Canada’s largest rolled steel producer, has been backing the product through its development stages.
Under the marketing banner of CleanFyre ™ , it’s been developed as an environmentally friendly direct drop-in replacement for metallurgical coal. The company said it can help the Canadian steel industry collectively cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 91 per cent.
Once operational in Thorold, CHAR said the two-kiln plant will replace 25 per cent of the steel company’s fossil coal and heat 5,500 homes in the area.
CHAR has a connection with the BMI Group and Paul Veldman, a developer proposing a Great Lakes port and mixed-used development on the site of the former paper mill at Red Rock, just south of Lake Nipigon.
BMI also owns the Thorold Multimodal Hub where CHAR is domiciled.
As well, BMI has a partnership with the Red Rock Indian Group, also a stakeholder in LNFMI.
On whether the Red Rock site might be suitable for the plant, White was non-committal, saying they are mulling over options with the project partners before making a final decision.
Over in Kirkland Lake, CHAR has an option on a property in town’s Archer Drive industrial park and are in the process of securing a wood waste supply agreement with a sawmilling neighbour, Rosko Forestry.
White said the front-end engineering design work starts this fall to advance the project to a shovel-ready stage in 2024.
White said they plan to develop both the Lake Nipigon and Kirkland Lake facilities “in tandem,” with both facilities to be commissioned in 2025.
He said they remain on the hunt for other locations in Northern Ontario to place facilities if there are supportive communities and they have access to woody biomass.
White mentioned at the company’s recent AGM in March that they had seven facility sites identified, nationwide, that are “cookie cutters” of Thorold.
Across the border in Quebec, CHAR is making inroads where the provincial government has mandated that utilities produce more renewable natural gas. The company has received funding to employ its HTP system adjacent to cogeneration biomass power plant run by the City of Saint-Félicien in the Lac Saint-Jean region.