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COVID-19, slumping oil prices, spurred plans for bioethanol plant

BC Hemp president Remi Balaj (left) and CEO Michael Fazakas have big plans for the company in Prince George. Bill Phillips photo

Is it ambitious? Absolutely.

Is tackling a suite of major projects worth an estimated $15 billion too big a bite to take? Not according to Michael Fazakas, CEO of BC Hemp Corporation. In addition to a $350 million hemp production facility it announced in early March, last week the company announced several projects it is working on, including  $2 billion bioethanol plant, a bio-fuels facility, and an ethylene plant, in addition to research and development facility and a pharmacy.

The big announcement last week was the bioethanol facility. The company has acquired the 300-acre site in the BCR Industrial Park that West Coast Olefins was going to use for its petrochemical plant.

“In short, we are going to bringing in raw hemp and we are going to be turning that into ethanol,” said Fazakas.

It’s not a new process as other places in the world already use corn and sugar cane to produce ethanol, which is a cleaner burning fuel. The process with hemp is it a little more involved, but workable.

The ethanol plant was always part of the company’s plans, but it was originally looking at developing the plant within the next five to 10 years.

“What we did realize was to work the agricultural piece (of the hemp production facility) we needed to guarantee a market,” he said. “We needed to be able to have a market that would take in the fibre from the independent farmers and create an economy around that.”

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic and the tanking of oil and gas prices around the world. That resulted in bioethanol plants started to diversify and increase production. Companies started moving into the hemp business.

“We thought this is a good time or us to bring it up and explore how we can do that,” Fazakas said.

While the original timeframe was five to 10 years from now for construction, now they are looking at six months.

The process does produce heat, which will be used to warm attached greenhouses, and power a turbine. The greenhouses also provide carbon offsets for the company.

Air quality is always an issue within the Prince George airshed and it was a major reason why the decision was made to move the petrochemical plant north. So what impact will a bioethanol plant have on the airshed. Very little, says Fazakas.

“Strictly speaking, as an agricultural ethanol producer, the by-products are less toxic than what an ethylene plant would be,” he said. “We’ll be lighter on the environment and we’ll be using all our by-products. Our waste will be lower and our carbon footprint will be close to neutral. As far as the airshed it concerned, it will not be the same as an ethylene plant.”

However, an ethylene plant is “possible” in the future, said Fazakas.

“The natural progression is if you had the ethanol, you could produce the ethylene,” he said.

He said if they do build an ethylene plant, it will be in the Prince George area, but a location has not yet been determined.

As for the bioethanol plant, it is not a “single product stream,” he said.

“The utilization of the ethanol does not have to be a single line, we’re going multiple streams,” he said.

The hemp production facility and the ethanol plant use, of course, hemp. The company is looking at getting local farmers to grow hemp, which the company will then purchase.

“We are putting a plan in place where we will work with farmers to help them from soil all the way through to providing us with a raw material,” he said.

He said rotational crops are key, so the plan is to supplement hay and cattle production, not replace it.

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