Cornerstone Renewables cleans up
By Diane Mettler
Cornerstone Renewables, a group of primarily dairies with anaerobic digesters, teams together to have a bigger presence in Ontario
By Diane Mettler
Bio-En Powers anaerobic digesters, located near Elmira, Ont. Photo by Contributed
For farmers trying to procure off-farm feedstock, it can be a time consuming process. Also, once the feedstock has been procured, its availability and pricing can turn out to be unstable. What’s a farmer to do? Enter, Cornerstone Renewables, a group of Ontario digester operators (primarily farmers), acting as one voice to secure volume and pricing.
Travis Woolings, general manager of Cornerstone Renewables, describes the group and its formation. “These are farms that generally have built digesters within the last five to 10 years. They didn’t want to be competing against each other anymore, and felt one voice would give them a lot more stability in pricing. They felt it would offer a much better solution to the producers of the waste. When the opportunity came up for me to work with them and that sort of sped things up.”
Travis previously worked with other waste companies developing compost markets, ag based solutions and other projects involving waste. That business development knowledge, as well as knowledge of the industry, is part of what Travis brought to Cornerstone. When the operators discussed the idea with him he says: “I laid awake for a couple nights thinking this is an amazing idea.”
The idea was simple. Cornerstone would provide a solution for waste producers in the province – diverting their organics away from landfills. The farms would get a stable feedstock for their digester; they could create methane gas, which they would use to generate electricity to be fed back into the grid. Lastly, the digestate from digesters is a rich in nutrients and could be applied to their crops, improving soil and saving on commercial fertilizers.
“It was a quadruple win,” says Travis.
When the 10 operators decided to move forward, they hired an outside consultant to help put together their thoughts and ideas. The consultant helped structure the company and its goals.
“On a structural side, the company has ten board members, and one additional member in the University of Guelph,” explains Travis. “It’s run, however, through an executive committee as well, where we have four executive members – a chair, a treasurer, and then two other individuals that have their own roll within the executive committee. The executive and I talk and meet regularly to discuss results, goals, and the happenings within the industry and then we meet as an entire group every quarter. It’s a very well thought out structure. And everyone has skin in the game, which makes a big difference.”
Of the 11 Cornerstone sites, nine are on-farm anaerobic digesters, ranging from 250 to 800 kW. And two are what Travis call merchant sites –commercial sites that can process up to 70,000 tons per year each. These sites also have certificates of approval allowing them to take more diverse feedstocks.
Geographically, they lie as far west as Windsor and as far east as Belleville. The remainder is located around the Kitchener/Cambridge/Waterloo area.
University on board
Another unique aspect of Cornerstone’s future has to do with one of its members – the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus anaerobic digester.
The university site is quite small, and is more of a research facility, which provides added benefits to Cornerstone. Travis says it’s a mutually beneficial. The university gets a steady supply of feedstock and Cornerstone can market the university’s involvement.
The company celebrated its one-year anniversary on January 1, 2015. In that year, Cornerstone has experienced amazing results.
The group, as a whole, has the capacity to process approximately 220,000 annually. When Cornerstone launched, the members were processing less than 50 percent of their capacity. “Now as a group, we’re at around 75 percent. We’ve grown tremendously and we did that without cannibalizing volumes away from out other sites.”
He adds it’s not all about volume though.
“We can be at 75 percent of our volume, but we could be 90 percent of our electricity. There’s a difference. So you can have low volumes, but high-energy feedstock. So from a production standpoint, we’re a good 75 percent average, and that’s probably a little conservative.”
The increase in volume is credited to the group’s ability to manage the incoming feedstock better between group members. But also the growth is due to that “single voice.”
“As a small farm, when you approach a large company and say, ‘I’d like your grocery store waste’, you’re looked at differently than when you approach them as a group called Cornerstone that has 11 locations across the province, servicing multiple stores. It’s a different pitch and you’re seen in a different light,” says Travis.
One of the largest challenges facing Cornerstone is the lack of knowledge in the marketplace and the need to educate the right people. And Travis has put 150,000 km on his truck this year going door to door, helping companies understand.
“For example, large companies don’t understand that if your waste is clean – there’s no packaging in it – we’ve got nine different sites that can handle that product for them. If you have dirty packaged waste, we have two other sites that can handle that.”
Also changing people’s behavior is difficult. It’s one thing to convince an upper manager or CEO that Cornerstone is a good, greener solution, but creating a new system where people change their habits and separate their waste, is more difficult, says Travis.
The logistics of getting the right waste to the right digester, and with the least amount of travel, can also become challenging.
A large part of the organic waste in Ontario comes from its urban centers, not ideally located next to a farm.
“We work with all kinds of different waste haulers and trucking companies,” says Travis. “But we also work with the waste producers to help them find solutions. We pride ourselves in being very hands on and flexible that way.”
In one instance, a Cornerstone member was able to suggest brining the waste in tote bins versus using large bulk loads in dump trailers or walk-in floor trailers or roll off bins. The unique solution not only allowed the company to find a greener solution for their waste but saved them considerable money as well.
“Because our operators are so hands on, they’re the ones that have been able to instigate these unique changes,” says Travis with pride.
Another challenge looming ahead is a good one – how to grow the company.
“I probably have no less than 10 sites in Ontario and more that would like to be a part of Cornerstone, and I’ve got some very strong interest in Eastern Canada as well,” says Travis.
To date, Cornerstone hasn’t brought any new members on board. The current members are a close group and they’re not only picky about who joins, but want to ensure certain goals are met before they go forward.
“Our sites are just basically, great big, enormous mechanical stomachs and we want to make sure those stomachs are full before you bring more on,” says Travis. “We definitely would like to add mores sites in Ontario and we’re considering outside the province too. We’re also looking into some unique niche markets that center around anaerobic digestion and gas. This year will be an interesting year. I believe we will be part of some very good change and innovation.”
In the meantime, the company is taking it slow. There are lots of farms that would be a good fit and ideas worth expanding on, but the group is exercising patience.
“You have to be controlled and calculated in your growth,” says Travis. “It’s the smart thing to do.”
And there are other elements to consider too, like changing regulations in the industry. For example, farm digesters are currently regulated under the nutrient management act, and are managed through their respective farm plans.
“Under the current set of regulations, a farm can receive, generally speaking, up to 10,000 tons per year of off farm waste,” explains Travis. “The new regulations have been changed and allow some of the newer systems to be able to take in up to 50 percent of off farm waste. So that’s a big game changer.”
Travis says he can’t speak for the group, but this incredible first year has filled him with pride and optimistically looking ahead.
“I’m extremely happy with the positive market presence that we have earned. We have gone from a group of individuals to a respected and go-to type of entity where many people are coming to us asking us for help, knowledge and advice. We’re quite happy with that.
“Personally, I feel very fortunate to be a part of this because I think it’s extremely innovative I look forward to making a lot more positive change within the industry. It’s a win-win for everybody. My children will benefit from the things that we’re doing. We’re creating a better environment and we’re creating a very sustainable solution for our clients.”
The Ontario Cornerstone Renewables members include:
- Ben Gardiner Farms – Kirkton, Ont.
- Woolwich Bio-En – Elmira, Ont.
- Koskamp Family Farms – Stratford, Ont.
- Birch Lawn Farms – Atwood, Ont.
- Seacliff Energy Ltd. – Leamington, Ont.
- Athlone Farms – Tavistock, Ont.
- Marl Creek – Elmira, Ont.
- Greenholm Power Ltd – Embro, Ont.
- Clovermead Farms Ltd. – Alma, Ont.
- Ridgeline Farms – Stirling, Ont.
- University of Guelph – Ridgetown Campus Anaerobic Digester, Ridgetown, Ont.