The future of biomass in Manitoba

Research identifies potential biofuel feedstock that grows on unusable land

Kelvin Vanderveen owns a 20-acre greenhouse in Carman, Manitoba. The water in Vanderveen’s greenhouses is heated in the winter with biofuel generated by burning flax shives (the byproduct of flax fibre extraction).

“There’s a flax factory in Carman that approached me with all this waste product, and they asked if I wanted to set up the infrastructure to burn it,” said Vanderveen. “I was looking for a cheaper way to heat my greenhouses.” 

Vanderveen is one of many farmers and producers who have made the switch from natural gas to bioenergy, adding to an already growing demand for biomass feedstock as a renewable energy source.

How grass will fuel the future

One of the people stepping up to help provide solutions to these biomass demands is Dr. Doug Cattani, a Professor at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Plant Science. 

With support from Growing Forward 2, Cattani and his research partner Patrick Friesen are testing four types of grass from across North America: Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and silvergrass (Miscanthus). 

The goal of the research is to determine which perennial grass produces the highest annual biomass yield so it can eventually become a dedicated biomass feedstock.

In order to be a desirable form of feedstock the grass must withstand the Manitoba winter, require minimal inputs to grow, provide consistent annual yield and have the capacity to grow on marginal land.

“We tested these grasses on lands that have been traditionally avoided for 15 or 20 years,” said Cattani. “You’ve got a renewable energy source that can grow on land that has sat idle, not being seeded.”

In the study’s first season, Cattani said Prairie cordgrass showed its potential to become Manitoba’s most productive biomass crop. It can also be used for land reclamation, wetland restoration and to help combat climate change by pulling carbon from the atmosphere for storage in its large root system.

Demand for biomass materials to expand

Eric Liu is a manager of foresight and analysis for Manitoba Agriculture. Liu said there is a current demand of between 50 to 60 thousand metric tonnes per year for biomass energy products in Manitoba. 

“While we have quite a few biomass suppliers in the province there’s still a gap in the material supply,” said Liu. “The whole focus of the biomass sector is replacing coal and natural gas. Manitoba needs a lot of heat in the winter time, and there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

As the bioenergy and biomaterial industries grow, they will require dedicated sources of dry plant matter to supplement existing residues from agriculture and forestry, residues like flax shive, sawdust and more. Establishing perennial warm season grasses as dedicated biomass crops could potentially provide new farm income streams. 

“Our first question was, do we have something people will need?” said Cattani. “Once this perennial crop is established, the potential risk of farmers not able to seed in the spring due to excess spring moisture is greatly reduced.”

Powering forward with biofuel

While there’s still more research to be done about Prairie cordgrass, the initial results from Cattani and Friesen’s research are promising, and could lead to a real solution for farmers.

Richard Grosshans, the Bioeconomy Lead with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, has spent 10 years researching plants like bulrushes and cattails and how to turn them into biofuel. 

“Our context is interesting because the biomass industry is taking off in Manitoba,” said Grosshans. “That’s why the research is important; we’re showing these types of fuels have added environmental benefits, while still fuelling entire operations.”