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Cattails Into Clean Energy: Where to from here?

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By Richard Grosshans, June 17, 2016

Richard Grosshans takes a look at the success our bioeconomy work harvesting cattails into clean-energy pellets, and discusses where the project is headed now.

This past year has been a monumental success for IISD’s Cattail Harvesting for Nutrient Capture and Sustainable Energy project: We finally reached large-scale harvesting and commercial biomass fuel production simultaneously. It feels like we have been climbing a mountain for the past four years and we made it to the top. Now, we can finally catch our breath, and look down the other side at all the new possibilities ahead of us.

What did we set out to achieve?

The project was meant to last for only three or four years. But after four years we knew that we were onto something important, and fortunately had the opportunity to scale up that research into an entire research program.

When we initiated the program 10 years ago, Lake Winnipeg’s issues with phosphorus and algae had not been in the public spotlight for long. In the beginning, one of our main goals was simply to find innovative ways to reduce the phosphorus entering Lake Winnipeg and help reduce algae on the lake.

We asked ourselves: Could we harvest plants (such as cattail and other large aquatic plants from water retention sites, marginal land areas, or highway ditches) to capture phosphorus and other contaminants these plants absorb, and then use this biomass for sustainable low-carbon energy and other bioproducts? What are the impacts of harvesting? How much phosphorus does cattail absorb? Can we remove that phosphorus by harvesting? Can we harvest it successfully?

What did we discover?

The answers to all these questions? "Yes." Cattail is an incredible plant, with an uncanny ability to absorb large quantities of phosphorus and all kinds of other contaminants.

The idea of using cattail for nutrient removal was a not a new idea, nor was the notion of burning it for energy. However, our approach was innovative for not looking at these problems in isolation or as a cost, but considering the environmental, economic and social benefits together. Basically, we showed you can harvest cattail annually with little long term impact to remove phosphorus and other elements, improve wetland habitat, and when dried the harvested plant material is an excellent fuel for energy.

The first few years were a great success

Over the next four years we moved beyond research to demonstrate these concepts in the watershed. We proved that you can actually harvest cattail and other plants on a larger scale to remove stored phosphorus, and use the harvested material for sustainable energy and other higher-value products. We also showed that managing these water retention sites has significant benefits controlling invasive plant growth, and we restored incredible wildlife habitat in the site at Pelly’s Lake in Manitoba by removing dense cattail. 

Along the way we also explored other high-value products, including biochar, bioethanol, anaerobic digestion and biogas, fibres, and, of course, solid compressed fuel products such as fuel pellets. We are also now branching out into new bioremediation options, using floating platforms of plants for treatment of waste water lagoon systems, and potentially even more nasty treatment such as in oil ponds or landfills.

The move into commercial usage

Our next step was to encourage people to use these fuel pellets on a larger scale. In order for harvesting to be considered by local governments in Manitoba, there had to be a reason to harvest beyond just cleaning out the ditches and retention sites or capturing phosphorus. We needed to demonstrate that these pellets had the potential to be a viable and commercial source of clean energy just like any other fuel pellet on the market.

Manitoba had recently announced a ban on the use of coal for space heating, and so the demand and need was there. This past year, we found this last piece of the puzzle. With our partners, we harvested over a thousand tonnes of cattail and other mixed ditch grasses, and produced a blended biomass fuel pellet. In fact, the blended cattail/wood fuel pellets turned out to be a superior premium fuel pellet with excellent burn qualities and excellent heat value. If harvested cattail were available, our partners would use it to make fuel.

Winter of 2015 was an exciting time, as it was the first time when large quantities of blended cattail/wood pellets were used for heating—by Hutterite colonies, the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, several local landowners, and Providence University College. The demand was there, and the demand for biomass in Manitoba is growing fast.

Where do we go from here?

We far surpassed our initial goal to explore innovative solutions to reduce phosphorus loading to Lake Winnipeg. We are proud to have contributed to the growth of the biomass industry in Manitoba, and helped to guide land and surface water management policies and practices in Manitoba, as well in other areas such as Minnesota, North Dakota, the American Great Lakes, and Germany.

The biomass market in Manitoba has gained incredible momentum and will grow at an even greater rate now over the coming years.

Local governments and organizations such as our Rural Municipalities and Conservation Districts are at the forefront of land and water management. We have new federal and provincial governments dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and protecting freshwater resources. It is our responsibility now more than ever to take what we have learned and continue to work with them to build a sustainable watershed of the future.