The Toronto Zoo introduced its highly anticipated new exhibit in May, featuring two Giant Pandas from China. But by next summer, you might notice another addition to the Toronto landmark--this time of the non-animal variety.
A 500 kilowatt biogas plant, fueled by animal waste from the zoo and food waste from local grocery stores, will be built to produce renewable energy and divert waste from landfills. It's an environmentally friendly way of utilizing an often-squandered resource. But what's really innovative about this project is that it is community owned.
, a non-profit co-operative and advocate for community power, has teamed up with the Toronto Zoo
to construct the plant. Building will begin next spring and the plant is expected to be operational by fall 2014. ZooShare has 27 investors who have given $460,000 towards the project and 115 members who have committed to buying $5,000 bonds.
ZooShare has won a Feed-in Tariff
(FIT) contract with the Ontario Power Authority
, an important step towards making this project successful. The contract will allow ZooShare to feed the energy it produces into the grid and sell it for a guaranteed price.
"The primary beneficiary of the plant that we're building is going to be Toronto and the local community," says Daniel Bida, executive director of ZooShare.
Bida says the plant will work "like a big stomach" that is fed manure and food waste and will produce gas and turn it into energy. The organic waste that is left over will be converted into high-quality fertilizer.
ZooShare got involved in the project because the zoo could not find viable corporate proposals for a biogas plant from the private sector. The co-op's proposal focussed on building a smaller plant--which can provide enough power for 250 homes annually--owned by people within the community.
The project fits into the zoo's education and conservation mandate, says Paul Whittam, manager of financial services at the zoo.
"It gives us the opportunity to redirect some of our waste that would otherwise just be composted and use it for a valid purpose of generating community-based power," he says.
Whittam points out that turning waste into energy is a common practice on farms in Europe and southwest Ontario.
The initiative is part of the growing community power industry, which Bida describes as "democratically controlled electricity generation with a very high local impact in economic and environmental terms."
The money generated from these initiatives gets cycled back into the local economy. In the case of ZooShare, 10 per cent of its annual earnings will be given back to the zoo, helping ease some of the financial burden on the popular Toronto attraction.
Some local politicians, including Mayor Rob Ford, have expressed interest in selling or leasing the zoo, which costs the city more than $11 million annually.
However, funding for community power can be difficult to raise. Bida says lenders are cautious about investing in new projects that have yet to establish a track record of profitability. He adds, however, that ZooShare's bonds will deliver a seven per cent annual return over seven years.
Gaining support within the renewable energy industry will be an uphill battle for the community power sector. In April, the Globe and Mail reported that 90 per cent of the wind power in Canada was controlled by large corporations and 25 per cent by foreign investors.
The most well known--and visible--community power project in Toronto is probably the wind turbine at the Exhibition Place, which is owned by the for-profit co-operative WindShare
. Like ZooShare, the turbine at the Ex proves that renewable energy initiatives don't have to be relegated to rural areas and the countryside. WindShare claims to be the first urban-located wind turbine in North America.
It's a valuable example for the sustainable energy sector, considering renewables represent a small portion of Ontario's power supply. According to the Independent Electricity System Operator, which monitors Ontario's power system, only three per cent of the energy generated in the province is from wind power and 0.8 percent is from other alternative sources including biogas.
The biggest source of energy is nuclear, which accounts for 56.4 percent, followed by gas and hydro at 22.3 percent and 14.6 percent respectively. The province says it will phase out coal by the end of 2014 and increase investment in renewables.
Harry French, director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association
's (OSEA) Community Power Services Group, which helps communities develop renewable energy initiatives, says the community power sector is not likely to topple the heavyweights of the energy business.
“It's a better alternative than nuclear energy but I don't think it will entirely replace centralized power generation in the short term or even medium term," he says. He believes the municipal and provincial governments have not been supportive enough of such projects.
The Ontario government has set up the FIT program, which provides service contracts to solar, wind, water and bioenergy generators, as a way to increase renewable energy sources. Community-based projects can apply for these contracts and add the energy they produce to the grid.
The Ontario Energy Ministry says there are almost 100 small solar FIT projects in Toronto, which can generate 10 to 500 kilowatts of energy each. The city also has over 500 microFIT solar projects, which generate less than 10 kilowatts.
However, French says the province has been inconsistent in its delivery of the FIT program and made the application process too complicated.
Despite the challenges, the Toronto Zoo is forging ahead with its plans. ZooShare hopes to expand this model to zoos across North America and "really [grow] the concept of community-owned biogas," Bida says.
Valentina Jovanovski is a freelance journalist from Toronto. Her work has appeared in the
Christian Science Monitor, the
Huffington Post, and other publications. You can follow Valentina on Twitter @Valentina_Jov.