On a field by the Toronto Zoo's overflow parking lot, the excrement of lions, tigers and bears, the organic slurry of a major grocery chain and helpings of manure from Markham dairy cows may be about to bring forth a harvest of power.
Now that they've got the right recipe, ZooShare Biogas Co-operative Inc. needs only government approvals and enough bond-buying investors to build a power-generating plant on the site next year, the two-man operation says.
By the end of 2013, the plant could be operating and producing 500 kilowatts of power from harvested methane, enough for 500 homes.
Behind the smelly puns - it's promotional material refers to ZooShare as "an investment with pootential" - is the unlikely story of a energy analyst for utilities, Daniel Bida, who four years ago focused on biogas as an energy solution "that just made sense."
A Junction resident and ZooShare's executive director, Bida says biogas is a great way to make something useful out of food waste the grocery company runs through a blender.
"If an apple isn't perfectly round and red, they don't sell it," Bida said. "They need to get rid of the waste and we need the waste."
zoo officials once contemplated a larger plant that would handle part of what's collected by the city's organics program.
The plan the zoo's management board and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, its landlord, approved last year is on a smaller scale and comes at no cost to the city or the zoo: mix 3,000 tonnes of zoo-animal manure and 12,000 tonnes of grocery-store slurry in a digestor, then a series of holding tanks, over 50 days to produce safe fertilizer and power.
But after taking samples for lengthy tests at the University of Guelph and a laboratory in Weston, Bida and Erik Lo Forte, ZooShare's other employee, knew they needed more manure as a buffer to balance the acidity of the food waste.
That prompted Bida and Lo Forte to approach dairy farmers north of the zoo in Markham.
ZooShare, sharing office space with the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative (TREC) at a Spadina Avenue building downtown, is breaking new ground. There are biogas plants at the Denver and Munich zoos but theirs will be one of the first to be at a zoo and be a co-op.
It started hosting information sessions in March at Metro Hall - the next will be held June 21 at 7 p.m. - trying to interest people in bonds that will supply the bulk of ZooShare's $5.4 million in start-up costs.
Though approval from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario is still pending, Bida and Lo Forte hope to start sales this fall and promise a seven per cent return to their $500 investors over seven years.
Alternative-energy fans with deeper pockets may be interested in a $5,000 community bond, or in a smaller number of $10,000 "Founder's Club" issues maturing in three years.
ZooShare has submitted a draft environmental assessment to the province and applied to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in March to allow the co-op to market its digested mixture as a safe fertilizer. "We don't anticipate that to be a road block," Bida said.
The co-op, which will also be displaying its plans at the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers' Market on Saturday, July 7, would be selling power to the grid under Ontario's feed-in-tariff (FIT) program.
Although some residents of the Ontario town of Elmira have objected to plans for a commercial biogas plant there, Bida said a session at Toronto Zoo uncovered no opposition to the ZooShare plant among some of its closest neighbours.
The heat of the digestion process kills the pathogens in the manure, he said. "Our operation will smell less than the current compost operation," which the zoo conducts on the same spot, said Bida.
The liquid grocery-store waste, which current goes to compost facilities or landfill, will go into the digestor by hose from "one truck once a day," said Lo Forte, ZooShare's community relations manager, who said its main building will contain a classroom for school visits.
"The zoo is on board and everyone at the zoo is super excited about it."
And no, Lo Forte said, the scheme won't suffer because of a lack of elephant poop. Though sizeable, the contributions of Iringa, Thika and Toka, soon to depart for a California sanctuary, are only a small part of the zoo's manure inventory.
Since 100,000 school children visit the zoo each year on tours, and the ZooShare plant will be "one more thing for them to see," Zoo board chairperson Joe Torczok said in an interview last month.
"It's a fantastic concept," as well as a demonstration of new technology, Torczok added.
"It takes a piece of property not generating much now and helps us generate revenue to put back into conservation and offset costs to the city."