Betting Big on Biogas
E van Chrapko is a country kid from Alberta, Canada, and he isn't afraid of going big. He’s built and sold a dot-com company for $811 million, helped turn around a startup web-based firm before selling it to DoubleClick (later purchased by Google) and, with the help of his brother Shane and members of an Oakley, Kan., ethanol plant, developed the largest biogas plant in North America through their company Himark BioGas.
He’s a software patent holder. He’s a technology guru who’s won the same award as the inventor of Java and the co-founder of eBay. He’s an investor and a technology guru. And, he believes renewable energy investment should not only happen close to where people live, but that the investment should be in biogas. Although Chrapko and his team at Himark have only two installations to speak of in North America, the company believes it has created an advanced, financially attractive and replicable anaerobic digester (AD) model that can be installed next to ethanol facilities or in remote Asian villages. The Himark vision for the waste-to-energy industry is anything but small, as evidenced in how Evan describes the roles he and his brother have taken in the company’s growth plan. “Shane and I split the world, into the developed world and the developing world.”
From Canadian Oil Sands to Kansas Prairie
There are several reasons Chrapko and his team are so high on their AD technology and visions for global expansion. For starters, there is the amount of investment put forth by the team. According to Evan, the company has invested double-digit millions into lawyer fees to protect the company’s technology patents and what Evan calls, Himark’s “head start.”
The Integrated Biomass Utilization System, or IMUS, is a multi-faceted AD system. The system allows for multi-feedstock inputs and uses a patented high-solids-in-feed setup that creates an optimal mix of solid and liquid waste into a digester core or vessel. The digester core features several separate digesters―a primary, secondary and tertiary. The core is heated and also employs a continuous maintenance feature that doesn’t interrupt the biogas production process.
Although the Kansas ethanol facility, Western Plains Energy LLC, utilizes animal manure from adjacent feedlots for AD feedstock, Himark has also developed another version of the technology that is rated for tough-to-digest waste streams typically associated with hospitals, slaughterhouses or food processing facilities. The technology can digest pathogens and toxins created in those streams.
But it’s not just the advanced technology or the money spent in protecting the patents that has the team excited, Evan says. It's using that head start, which can be linked to the oil sands of Alberta. As Evan explains it, several years ago, the Alberta government wanted to repair the black eye created from the unpopular sight of the oil sands (which can be seen from satellite imagery). “The ministry of energy started pouring lots of money into the (waste-to-energy) issues that we are talking about,” he says. Because the oil sands recovery industry is in the billions of dollars, Evan says it was a natural fit for the government to find a global-class solution. The solution, seen in Himark’s biogas technology, is at an advantage because, as he implies, the scientists and engineers who designed it came from a billion-dollar industry, not a million-dollar industry. “They (the scientists and engineers) were operating on a bigger scale,” and because of that, so can Himark.
Since starting the Himark brand, the Chrapkos have contributed to the $8.4 million BioWaste-to-Energy for Canada Integration Initiative Corp., a not-for-profit center that helps other firms like energy-focused Himark enter the bioenergy sector in Canada. The initiative has already attracted 8 members.
Western Plains Energy CEO Steve McNich is so high on the Himark technology package, that he recently provided an overview of the process and why it will benefit other ethanol facilities at an American Coalition for Ethanol conference in Iowa. During his presentation, McNich outlined the savings created from the AD technology. A 50 MMgy ethanol plant can replace existing boilers or natural gas usage for a savings of roughly $5 million per year. That same plant can also reduce electricity costs by installing the biopower generation portion of the system for a savings of nearly $3.3 million. If, and this may be a big if, that ethanol plant is using grain sorghum (milo) as a feedstock, the plant would also qualify for advanced biofuel D5 RINs, which in combination with the other savings, would add $35 million per year to the bottom line of that 50 MMgy ethanol facility. The yearly operations costs for the AD system co-located at the ethanol facility would total roughly $3 million, according to Western Plains Energy.
The Global Appeal of Waste to Energy
The potential for Himark’s presence in North America is large, according to Chrapko, but the company believes it has first-hand knowledge to justify its global aspirations. Several members of the team operate out of overseas offices and have seen the need for waste-to-energy applications. Evan also has his own perspective on the need for waste to energy. During a research trip overseas, he says a scene at a hospital caused him to write a lengthy, late-night email to his co-workers.
“I saw a woman on a step of a hospital in desperate need of care,” he explains, “and the doors were locked and the power was off. I wrote that night that if we only put in one-half of 1 MW, then we will have done a heck of a lot more than Silicon Valley or Wall Street put together.”
In addition to witnessing a scene Chrapko says happens too often in too many places, the company also has an analogy it believes explains the potential for waste to energy. Think of it, he says, in comparison to the lifespan of the phone practices applied by most today. Developing countries waited to install the infrastructure to provide large-scale, widely distributed power. In some ways, he believes, those countries are similar to cellphone users of today who skip landline phone service altogether and go straight to cellphone for all phone applications. The same is happening with power production in many places. Many areas waited to install the infrastructure to produce and distribute power, and now, because those areas need power and waste-to-energy applications are available, companies like Himark can thrive.
Not all companies are like Himark, however, a reality that Chrapko believes acts as an advantage. “We find our European and American competitors at a disadvantage,” he says. “They are trying to force their equipment in a setting.” Chrapko says his company does just the opposite, looking to manufacture engines, vessels or other modules in the country of operation. “Adding more hoops to the equation doesn’t help anyone,” he says of companies trying to force an application specific technology on a project developer.
Working with multinational corporations, local economic development offices and former bridge builders or power plant construction firms, has helped boost the reputation of Himark, Chrapko adds. Himark will still use its own case-specific project designs, but it won’t use a certain product if it will create added stress to the community employing the AD system. Currently, the company is working on more than two dozen projects overseas. As good as that may sound however, Evan says because they are huge projects, they will take years. But he’s not worried, for one simple reason.
Himark invests in its own projects, deploys hundreds of man-hours to design a feasible project and performs feasibility studies. With all of the success of the Chrapko brothers, the company still hasn’t gone public, an element that allows the company to do what it wants without reporting to anyone, an element that also helps land large projects globally. “We have the supreme luxury of taking an ultra-long-term view,” he says, and foreign governments like that.
That same view has also allowed the company to develop other companies, unnamed and not public yet, that can develop other AD system technology, including a bolt-on technology that he says will address what every AD operation will someday have, an algae nutrient processing piece.
No matter what, the Himark team believes in biogas because it takes a negative and turns it into a positive, Evan says. Between renewable energy development, software patents and selling companies for hundreds of millions, Chrapko won’t admit to loving one over the other, but if the company’s desire to know more about waste-to-energy's potential (and its $25 million R&D budget) isn’t enough to show why Evan isn’t, in fact, afraid to go big for biogas, then maybe it’s the excitement in his voice when he talks about an unnamed project that the company will soon announce. If the Oakley, Kan., installation looks big because it can replace 90 percent of the ethanol facility’s fossil fuel usage, then just wait. The project Evan really wants to talk about but can’t just yet, a project led in part by GE, will be the biggest biogas installation in the world, Chrapko says, “probably by a factor of two or three.”
Author: Luke Geiver
Features Editor, Biomass Magazine