Cities Summit brings bright minds together on greening urban futures

Phillip Abrary and Gordon Skene are making money from the waste you flush down the toilet.

And unlike urban planners and politicians who worry about the steady migration of people to urban environments, they’re happy because it only means their waste-recovery inventions are needed that much more.

Abrary’s company, Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., and Skene’s Paradigm Environmental Technologies Inc. will be at this week’s Cities Summit, a City of Vancouver-sponsored forum looking into ways cities can cope with the growth anticipated over the next four decades.

Ostara and Paradigm have complementary technologies that are taking a bite out of the waste produced in municipal waste water treatment facilities.

Ostara sifts out nutrients from waste sludge, producing high-value, slow-release phosphorus for fertilizer. Paradigm produces biomass energy from the same sludge, reducing the amount that has to be trucked away for disposal. Both are based in Vancouver.

“Cities are huge sinks for nutrients,� Abrary said. “All the nutrients, all the food we generate are consumed in these cities and it is a great central location to recover those nutrients.�

The summit is the brainchild of Mayor Gregor Robertson, who tasked his Vancouver Economic Commission with organizing an international conference looking at how city-building will be influenced by, and can influence, emerging technology.

More than 3.5 billion people live in urban centres around the world, and by 2030 that number will rise by another two billion, according to the United Nations. The world’s cities aren’t really capable of supporting that now, Robertson said.

“The future of our planet depends upon a very innovative approach to building cities,� he said. “We’re seeing massive urbanization across the world and in building infrastructure there has to be a new generation of clean, efficient and smart technologies in order for us to prosper. We are at the dawn of a whole new era of people living in cities and having to reduce their impact on the planet.�

At first blush, the conference may look like a smaller version of the massive GLOBE conference that comes to Vancouver every other year. In March, GLOBE, billed by its organizers as “one of the world’s largest and longest-running events dedicated to business and the environment� will be back in town with 10,000 delegates and more than 400 companies.

But Robertson said his Cities Summit, which is drawing about 400 delegates, is targeted toward how local governments deal with the looming migration of people to their cities.

“Cities and entrepreneurs often work in bubbles and don’t often have the time or bandwidth to see what is happening next door or across the ocean,� he said. “We’re drilling down on cities and infrastructure and technology that is emerging at a city scale.�

Lee Malleau, the chief executive officer of the economic commission, says the conference is already “well in the black� and will likely be an annual affair. The estimated $250,000 cost is being covered from sponsorships and ticket sales. Taxpayers won’t be responsible for any cost, she said.

The event is being co-organized by CityAge, a company formed by Marc Andrew, a ministerial assistant to former finance minister Colin Hansen and Miro Cernetig, a former Vancouver Sun columnist.

All but one of the speakers who are being brought in are paying their own way. Only Douglas Coupland, Vancouver’s pop artist, author and culture guru is being paid an honorarium, Malleau said.

Speakers include Kansas City Mayor Sly James, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, representatives from tech giants IBM and Google, venture capital companies, Simon Fraser University Chancellor Carole Taylor and local academics.

The conference is part of Robertson’s long-term pitch to create investment in green technology in B.C. His Vision Vancouver council reconstituted the old taxpayer-funded Vancouver Economic Development Commission into a green-focused organization that has, for the most part, ignored B.C.’s traditional resource-based industries.

“What’s necessary is bringing together entrepreneurs and political leadership to create new partnerships that embrace the innovation and accelerate the implementation of new technology of that [green] goal,� Robertson said.

For environmental tech companies like Ostara and Paradigm, the Cities Summit’s roster of speakers brings rich potential for opportunity.

Abrary said Ostara is looking to expand its technology, developed at the University of British Columbia, to medium and large municipalities around the world. It is already producing high-value, high-quality phosphorus fertilizer at six waste water treatment plants in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. The product, Crystal Green, is sold to nurseries and specialty plant growers. One of the first multi-tonne contracts was to B.C.’s Environment Ministry, which uses the slow-release phosphorus in oxygen-deficient streams to help spur the growth of fish fry.

Abrary says the company’s technology recovers phosphorus from waste sludge that would otherwise have to be trucked away and landfilled. With 77 per cent of the world’s annual production of 50 million tonnes of phosphorus being mined in Morocco and the Sahara region, recovering the mineral as a byproduct of sewage and selling to local agri-grow companies makes economic sense, he said.

“From a resource preservation and efficiency perspective, as well as an environmental impact, the end product in itself has tremendous sustainability benefits,� Abrary said.

Paradigm, like Ostara, is a small privately held company funded by angel investors and venture capital funds. It has one municipal project, a $13.1-million deal with Metro Vancouver to produce bioenergy from sludge at the Lulu Island treatment plant. It also is in the middle of a $6.1-million project with Catalyst Paper’s Crofton mill to produce energy. That project is largely funded by the federal and provincial governments.

Skene said the Metro Vancouver project will produce enough high-quality gas for Fortis BC to power 300 homes. Fortis will sell it at a premium to homeowners willing to pay between $3 and $4 a month more for “renewable� energy, he said.

“Our technology allows a much higher portion of the organics that go into the digesters to be converted to biogas. And if they’re converted to biogas that means much less residuals would have to be trucked away,� Skene said.

With $13 million going into the project to produce gas for 300 homes, the project may sound thin. But Skene says Metro will save transportation and disposal costs over the long run. The real value is that the technology will reduce the amount of infrastructure municipalities have to put into waste treatment plants.

With the average new treatment plant needing up to six anaerobic digesters, Paradigm’s technology can reduce that need to five, saving capital costs of up to $50 million.

“That’s the home-run return for governments with this technology,� he said.

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