PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Updated: Aug 4
AB ENERGY CANADA DELIVERS MAXIMUM ENERGY EFFICIENCY TO THE GREENHOUSE SECTOR FOR THE LONG TERM
In the competitive world of greenhouse operations, the “low-hanging fruit” for owners and operators seeking to reduce costs often amounts to squeezing every last joule of energy from their energy inputs. It takes innovation and the right team to get the job done right.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Buijk, CEO of AB Energy Canada, from his office in Minesing, Ontario, to discuss AB Energy’s approach to maximizing energy efficiency for the greenhouse sector. During the call, he highlighted an exceedingly successful project the company completed that represents a perfect example of what’s possible. The following is an edited version of our discussion.
JM: Good day, Jan. Thank you for participating in this interview. Would you please provide us some background about yourself, the company you work with and what you’re out to accomplish here in Canada?
JB: My pleasure. I’ve spent my entire working career in the gas-fired cogeneration business, starting in the Netherlands back in 1984. There, I worked for a small company packaging gas engines for cogeneration projects. In 1988, I moved to Canada and in 1989 began working with a Caterpillar dealership, spending 12 years there.
In 2001, General Electric became the Canadian distributor for Jenbacher gas engines, and I took on the sales and business development responsibilities for these engines. Two years later, GE acquired Jenbacher and set up its global distributor network. By 2004, I began working with the new Canadian distributor to set up the group charged with growing the Jenbacher business in Canada.
It was 2009 when I acted on the opportunity to start my own company, partnering with a colleague to form European Power Systems or EPS. We opened our doors in March 2010, importing European packaged pre-engineered cogeneration systems to the Canadian market. We felt comfortable our technology was superior to that made in North America. Within a couple of years, we had established ourselves with an excellent start in this business. Our success caught the eye of Gruppo AB of Italy, and in 2013, EPS became AB Energy Canada, a subsidiary of Gruppo AB’s global organization.
The merger was a natural fit, as both organizations fully aligned on the goal of supplying unique pre-engineered and packaged gas cogeneration systems employing Jenbacher gas engines to our Canadian customers. We continue with that mission to this day, dedicated to selling, servicing and maintaining onsite power generation systems.
JM: You and AB Energy Canada recently completed a project that showcases the value of the clean technology you offer your clients. Would you mind telling us more about that project?
JB: Sure. The project you refer to was one we completed with a company then known as Aphria. We finished two projects with Aphria in 2018 and 2019. They built two greenhouses for cannabis production in the Leamington ON area, and AB Energy Canada supplied the cogeneration systems for both. Tilray is a significant player in the cannabis production sector, and they acquired Aphria during this time, continuing operations under the Tilray name. Both greenhouse cogeneration systems have been operating for the past couple of years.
JM: What were the challenges your customer faced when they came to you?
JB: Both greenhouse operations would require more energy than the electrical utility could supply in those locations. The grow lights, in particular, require a great deal of energy, as they operate from October through May each year to extend the growing season and increase plant yield.
On the first project, we sat with the owners of Aphria and discussed how to best structure the energy plan for their greenhouse. A critical consideration for the customer was long-term in scope – that being, how to remain competitive in the cannabis business as it evolved into a commodity business (as the owners expected it would). For us, it came down to figuring out how to squeeze every bit of energy out of the energy plan we devised.
We all acknowledged the cogeneration plant needed to develop sufficient power to operate the grow lights, but more was required to achieve the desired system energy efficiency targets. We added features, including heat recovery from the engine exhaust, the jacket water cooling system and the oil cooler and the aftercooler to boost energy efficiency. We didn’t stop there – we included a carbon dioxide extraction system that stripped the NOx, carbon monoxide, ethylene and other contaminants from the exhaust gases to deliver carbon dioxide to the greenhouse to feed the cannabis plants.
The grow lights generate a fair amount of heat, to the extent that the greenhouse could not use all the heat we recovered from the cogeneration system in the form of heated water. To avoid wasting that recovered heat energy, absorption chillers were added to produce chilled water, including installing large buffer tanks to store hot or chilled water for use when needed.
JM: How and why did your client end up talking to you?
JB: Aphria contacted us due to the ten or so years we spent developing relationships in the greenhouse sector. The owners were friends of mine and deeply engaged as owner-operators of vegetable and flower greenhouses. They were aware of cogeneration concepts to generate energy and increase energy efficiencies. Once they started their new venture in the cannabis sector, going public and securing investment funding, they contacted us and other technology providers to discuss onsite power generation.
JM: What was it that compelled the client to sign the deal with you and not some other company? What did you promise them?
JB: I recall a pivotal moment when the owners were reviewing their options. They were pondering having a third party build, own and operate a power generation facility to supply the electricity they needed to power their greenhouse operations. At the same time, we had spent many months with Aphria discussing how our cogeneration system would have to work to integrate with their greenhouse operation, accounting for the different energy streams (hot water, chilled water, the exhaust system) and how to coordinate the control system for the greenhouse lighting and other loads.
Ultimately, Aphria chose to proceed with us. Why? First, they appreciated that our complete and optimized energy solution was custom-designed for their operation. And second, Aphria took comfort in our commitment to being married to their project for not only the year we would supply and install the equipment, but for the 20 years after that while we maintained the plant in optimal condition.
JM: Is this extensive after-sales service typical for AB Energy?
JB: It is. Ultimately, that is what AB Energy is all about – we not only design and build the best possible cogeneration plant, but we will maintain the system to achieve maximum performance over its 20-30 year design life.
More than 95% of the installations AB Energy supplies include a long-term maintenance agreement, known as the AB Protection Plan, that covers everything. When a customer signs up for this plan, they are assured that for the 10 to 15-year duration of the program, should anything in the system break down or malfunction, we will make it whole.
JM: That’s a strong selling point. But I expect there’s more to the story?
JB: Indeed there is. For the Aphria projects, we supplied and assembled the cogeneration systems and undertook some, but not all, of the system integration. AB Energy’s core business is delivering the “box” that produces electricity, hot water and chilled water. Quite regularly, however, our company will take on the complete design and construction of the entire power plant. The construction people are local to the project – we’ll contract with a local engineering firm and local installation contractors. Within our Canadian organization, we have a project management group that pulls together the local companies required to offer our customers a complete turnkey solution.
JM: What hurdles did you and your team have to deal with during the execution of the project? How were they overcome?
JB: I wouldn’t use the term hurdle. Aphria was a very involved customer and wanted plenty of complicated control details and backup systems and different ways to operate the system. The project became incredibly challenging and complex. However, our company’s flexibility and experience can accommodate such extensive customization opportunities, and so we did.
JM: How effective was your technical solution in terms of benefiting your customer?
JB: For this project, the client enjoys an overall system efficiency of 94%. To put it another way, our customer captured 94% of the energy value of the natural gas used to power the plant. Furthermore, they captured and used a portion of the carbon dioxide from the exhaust stacks to enhance plant growth and product yield.
To compare this remarkable result, consider that a cogeneration system commonly designed only to produce electricity for a greenhouse operation delivers a system efficiency of 40-45%. In a typical building application, a cogeneration system might reach 75-85% system efficiency. The 94% value we achieved for Aphria is truly extraordinary.
JM: Before we end this interview, Jan, have you any other comments you’d like to make?
JB: It’s worth mentioning that what’s unique about this project is not about deploying new technologies, because we’re not. The use of gas engines, generators, heat recovery, capturing the carbon dioxide present in the exhaust and absorption cooling has been well-established for decades.
However, pulling them all together as we did on this project – with hot water and chilled water storage and a central control system that continually analyzes and seeks the most efficient means of managing the greenhouse energy requirements, all in one complete package delivering exceptional energy efficiency – well, that’s the real magic we brought about.
JM: Jan, what is the best way for people to learn more about your company and its solutions?
JB: I recommend anyone interested in discovering how we can help them realize better energy efficiency and achieve more sustainable operations to visit our recently updated website at www.gruppoab.com. Click on the “Book a Free Consultation Online” button to arrange a video call with an expert who will be best suited to respond to your inquiries.