The Last Word

Alberta sawmill’s partnership with biofuel producer deserves praise

By Tony Kryzanowski

Vanderwell Contractors, a steady fixture of Alberta’s forest industry for 70 years, will be supplying the raw material for a $35 million biofuel and hydrogen commercial demonstration project owned and operated by Expander Energy Inc., to begin production late in 2022.

This new plant will make better use of the waste material generated by the Vanderwell sawmill located near Slave Lake, Alberta. Vanderwell is also providing the plant site.

With this project, the forest industry is showing once again that in addition to harvesting and planting trees on a sustainable basis—which sequester massive amounts of carbon—the industry can also play a significant role to address the challenges posed by greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change in how it manages its wood waste. And if things go well with the project, it could up production, and tap into a huge market.

“This is about converting waste material into a high-quality renewable low-carbon intensity fuel and a valuable hydrogen product that can help both the environment and create a new industry in Alberta and Canada,” says Ken Vanderwell, President of Vanderwell Contractors, who is also a member of the board of the Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA) and its former chair.

Now that Expander Energy has received its critical environmental permit from the Alberta government, construction has started. Building the first phase of Canada’s first biomass-to-gas-to-liquids (BGTL) commercial demonstration project will provide over 100 much-needed construction jobs. Production at the plant will begin at the end of 2022, providing another 10 permanent jobs.

This first phase will produce 6.5 million litres annually of biodiesel, also known as syndiesel, as well as 2.2 tonnes per day of blue hydrogen, which is hydrogen derived from breaking down methane molecules. But if all goes well, this is expected to be just the beginning of the development of a huge production facility.

The long term goal is for a total, phased-in investment of $600 million in the Slave Lake area, to achieve production of 160 million litres per year of zero-carbon syndiesel and 50 tonnes per day of blue hydrogen.

Expander Energy has stated that its goal is to produce biodiesel, jet fuel and blue hydrogen with a net zero carbon intensity. Net zero-carbon means that the production of both the biodiesel and blue hydrogen will not add carbon emissions on a net basis to the environment as part of the manufacturing process.

With a diverse product mix, the plant certainly has a better chance for success, but it will be interesting to see if they can convince environmentalists that they actually can legitimately achieve net zero status. There will be a lot of scrutiny on this matter as according to experts in hydrogen production, the conventional method of producing hydrogen using natural gas as the primary feedstock gives off more than 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of hydrogen produced. How Expander Energy manages and verifies their net zero claim will be critical to the project’s success. Likely it is the technology that they are deploying that gives them confidence that they can address this issue.

Expander Energy has spent considerable time, energy and effort implementing and validating the commercial viability of its technology, which is encouraging. One of the biggest knocks with the significant roll-out of biotech entering the green economy are the number of instances where technology, while scientifically possible, is later proven commercially non-viable at scale. The company has been slow and careful in the evaluation and trial of its technology. The Slave Lake facility will not be the guinea pig. Its patented enhanced GTL technology, developed through an affiliated company called Rocky Mountain GTL, has already been deployed at a small-scale plant east of Calgary in Carseland, producing biodiesel from raw natural gas.

So this should provide greater assurance to the community and industry that they won’t be left with a huge white elephant sitting in the Vanderwell sawmill yard a few years down the road, although there is no guarantee that won’t happen.

Certainly the Slave Lake project pleases the Alberta government, which recently announced its Natural Gas Vision and Strategy. That strategy includes the goal of achieving large-scale hydrogen production with carbon capture, utilization and storage and deployment in various commercial applications across the provincial economy by 2030. The province anticipates that global demand for hydrogen will increase tenfold in the coming decades, stating that the Hydrogen Council has estimated that by 2050, the global hydrogen sector could generate $2.5 trillion (U.S.) per year and create 30 million jobs.

That is a bold claim. Time will tell.

It seems that the challenge down the road will be the fight for market share between blue and green hydrogen, which is hydrogen produced with a non-fossil fuel feedstock. It will ultimately be up to end users how the market unfolds, but Vanderwell Contractors certainly deserves full credit for making an effort to capture more value from their sawmill waste.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal

November/December 2021

On the Cover:
Logging company Tri Valley Construction Ltd., of Princeton, B.C., did not hesitate when they were approached by Cat and B.C. Cat dealer, Finning, about participating in a trial of the new Cat 538 machine—and the new machine has proven itself in B.C.’s Southern Interior. Tri Valley is also getting involved in more steep slope logging, with the purchase of Tractionline and Harvestline equipment from The Inland Group. (Cover photo courtesy of Tri Valley Construction).

Major industry expansions in Saskatchewan
Big things are happening in the forest industry in Saskatchewan, with a new timber allocation from the Saskatchewan government supporting growth of the industry, including a $100 million expansion of Dunkley Lumber’s Carrot River sawmill.

Moving into steep slope equipment
Tri Valley Construction has been working with some new logging equipment, having solid success with Cat’s new 538 machine, and the company is now springboarding into getting involved with steep slope logging equipment in B.C.’s Southern Interior.

Franklin Forest dives into different markets
Franklin Forest Products turns out a variety of wood products—everything from wood for logging road bridges to diving boards—from its spectacular location on Vancouver Island’s Alberni Inlet, using an interesting combination of mill equipment.

Livestock—and logging
Livestock still makes up a good portion of the business for B.C.’s Ootsa Lake Cattle Company, but it has also been doing more logging the last few years, including an interesting project for a community forest.

Turning out more lumber on The Rock
Newfoundland’s largest sawmill, Sexton Lumber, has seen some big increases in demand for lumber, and has incorporated a number of equipment changes to improve efficiencies.

TLA Conference

THE EDGE
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.

Tech Update: 
From power upgrades to safety improvements, read all about what’s new in mulcher systems in this issue’s

The Last Word
The partnership of Alberta sawmill Vanderwell Contractors—which will be supplying the raw material for a $35 million biofuel and hydrogen commercial demonstration project partnership—with a biofuel producer deserves praise, says Tony Kryzanowski.

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