Greener Engineering

The founders of Fortress Engineering Ltd. push for government incentives and public demand in order to better their industry

With a depressed market, Sean Roberts, vice president, has incorporated Fortress’ sustainability expertise into traditional oil-and-gas work.

Shortly after Fortress Engineering formed in 2007, it became the go-to firm for green engineering projects in Calgary. The problem was that, in a slow and slippery recovery, investors had cut or eliminated funding for sustainable projects. In the meantime, while still hopeful for a return to green investment, owners Kurt Horner and Sean Roberts have had to rethink their business plan to get by.

“At first, we were interested in these sustainable initiatives because we wanted to be involved with innovative, forward-thinking people,” says Roberts, who is Fortress Engineering’s vice president. “But in the end, we also want to stay in business. And oil-and-gas work is what put us back in business.”

Roberts and Horner were employed at a conventional firm, doing lucrative oil-and-gas projects, when a prospect approached them with a cutting-edge proposition: to build a biorefinery that would produce electricity from cow manure and ethanol from wheat. “The electricity produced would power the facility so that, through the energy consumption of nonrenewable sources, we would create 100 percent renewable energy,” Roberts says. “It was something exciting to launch Fortress Engineering with.”

Biodigestion, the process which turns cow manure to electricity, is a pure green concept. “The idea of the biorefinery is to take organic waste, put it inside a contained vessel, and allow bacteria to eat the organic material and produce methane as a by-product,” Horner explains. The facility then captures the methane and burns it in engines and boilers, producing heat and electricity to run the property. Any excess energy is sold for open-market consumption.

After Roberts, a mechanical engineer, and Horner, an electrical engineer, left their day jobs to design the biorefinery, the funding came to a halt midway through the project. Today, only about half of the envisioned property is complete.

“We have found that most proponents of green projects are relatively small-time, small-money people with good ideas who don’t have the money to execute them themselves,” Roberts says. “So they require a large percent of the funding to come from third parties, and those parties virtually disappeared in the 2008/09 recession.”

Renewable-energy projects tend to demand a higher cash outlay. Investors typically have an altruistic slant to consider such projects in the first place, since they lack the short-term ROI needed to pique an angel investor’s interest. “It’s cheaper to make regular gas than ethanol, and it’s cheaper to make oil or natural gas than a renewable source,” Roberts says.

Of the 50 or so green projects that Fortress Engineering has consulted on in the past few years—from wind farms to gasification projects—most have not advanced, and none have come to fruition. But that hasn’t stopped Roberts and Horner from expanding into a 55-person operation. After all, oil and gas is still a gold mine in Calgary.

In Western Canada, the renewable-energy industry is on a hiatus, Roberts says. “There are lots of people out there still dreaming up the ideas, but the dollars earmarked for those feel-good projects have largely disappeared,” he explains. “There was momentum, but then even the billionaires lost money, so the money they were willing to play with has been pulled back in their pocket.”

With bigger green projects on hold, Roberts and Horner aim to integrate energy-consumption control into their conventional work: reducing greenhouse emissions. For example, they often advise clients to replace old equipment, such as energy-inefficient motors, and to update round-the-clock lighting with lighting activated by motion sensors. Such revisions can result in a payoff on utility bills within six months to two years.

In the larger scheme of alternative energy, Roberts says the government and the public are the two main forces needed to drive change. According to Horner, many petroleum companies still haven’t adopted ethanol-blended gas, despite government mandates for a minimum percentage, because the penalties are less expensive than the cost of adding ethanol mixing into their infrastructure.

“Government programs and regulations need to be stronger and have more teeth to push the industry into renewable sources,” Roberts says.

With this, Roberts is challenging the green-funding hype. “Although Canada has announced funding for green initiatives, those are promises that make good media stories,” he says. “But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, they don’t want to cough up the money. We need a critical mass to drive demand and make alternative fuels a competitive option.”