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Alberta Yield: Wintergreen Pellets turning ag waste into green energy

Campbell Cameron’s brother Caith had spent about 10 years working on his wife’s family farm up near Didsbury, Alberta.

About five years ago, he was looking at additional revenue opportunities to help benefit the farm. One aspect they’d identified was the amount of leftover straw they had.

“The farmers typically use it for animal bedding. But for the most part a lot of that gets bailed out and just got it gets stored away and rots away and is not used,” Campbell said.

That’s when he started to network with others and got connected to a couple of seminars at Olds College, north of Calgary.  A little more research and Caith soon realized the potential.

If you pelletize the leftover straw, it can be used as a fuel source. It’s similar to how wood pellets are being used to replace coal in some areas, Campbell said.

“It’s not like it’s a brand-new science or anything,” Campbell said.  

“It’s just taking a look at how Alberta uses their straw and identifying the fact that there’s some real value to the farming operations if they can sell the straw and turn it into pellets and then ultimately, burning, replacing fossil fuels, especially coal.”

That began Wintergreen Pellets. But, Campbell didn’t join his brother until March 2020, when his project management job in construction started to slow down due to COVID-19.

Campbell had 10 years of project management experience in construction, but also in renewable energy.

“I really saw it as a promising opportunity for just the way the world in Canada is trending in terms of looking for renewable fuel sources,” he said.

Teaming up with UBC

Campbell had come across an article that said the University of British Columbia was doing a research project on the commercialization of agri-pellets.

He said they reached out to them, explaining what they were up to locally. A few days later UBC responded. After a handful of conversations about setting up a small pellet mill for research and awareness, they settled on a location for the Swedish-made processor.

“It’s in a 20-foot sea can container and it’s basically a plug-and-play operation.”

They already had some hay stored from the prior season ready to go. They also had some interest from biomass plants and coal plants to give the pellets a try.

According to Campbell, straw pellets are considered a carbon-neutral fuel source. He said the emissions created in from burning the straw we absorbed in the creation of it during growth.

“Compared to coal, as you know, coal is just sitting in the ground, it’s not like it’s absorbing any carbon,” he said.

Evolution of a business

One of the big takeaways for the pair during the Platform Calgary Alberta Yield program was the understanding of taking a business from ground zero to the next level.

“Neither me nor my brother have started a business before,” Campbell said.

“We’ve definitely had different projects on the side, but in order to really make a splash you need to know how to talk the talk and get respect in the investor community.”

Working with the other startups and the mentors in the program added a lot of confidence, Campbell said.

The goal in the first year is to do a lot of testing of different pellets. They’ll work with UBC to test the burn profile of different base crops (barley, canola, wheat and hemp).

There are wood pellet suppliers in Canada and Campbell said that’s a natural place to go to fill contracts.

There are other applications, too. Straw has a good absorption quality, so the pellets could be used for industrial spills. It also absorbs algae that may have overtaken bodies of water, Campbell said. There’s even a market for the ash produced when the straw is burned.

Eventually, a larger, industrial-scale production will be necessary. Something capable of producing 50,000 to 70,000 tons of pellets annually.

“We’ve got a spot eyed-out that ties into the railway network, so there is good potential,” he said.