Biofuel prospects in oil-rich Alberta

Map of AlbertaThe Edmonton Journal‘s Hanneke Brooymans is writing an excellent series on the prospects for biofuels in Alberta. Brooymans is a longtime environment reporter and her expertise shows.

Part One is a survey of the ethanol and biodiesel scene today.

Alberta took a big step towards a biofuels future last October when it announced a $239-million bioenergy program.
It was taking a cue from the federal government, which had announced the previous May its intention to legislate the blending of ethanol into the gasoline we pump into our vehicles.
Ottawa backed this up in March by budgeting $2 billion over the next seven years to promote investment in renewable fuels. Though the federal ethanol mandate is not yet law, it’s coming, and many provincial governments are acting to ensure their voters don’t miss out on a guaranteed market.
Provinces like Saskatchewan, with three ethanol plants, and Ontario, with 10 ethanol plants either operating or under construction, have proved that when it comes to producing fuel from crops, initiative matters more than the plain dumb luck associated with petroleum deposits.
Figuring out the formula to attract these plants is becoming crucial, as federal and provincial cash pours into the industry, allowing companies to pick and choose where to locate.

Part Two takes a suitably skeptical look at the environmental impact of biofuels.

All told, the federal mandate of five per cent ethanol in gasoline blends by 2010 should reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about three million tonnes a year, said [mechanical engineer and biofuel efficiency analyst Don] O’Connor, who finds this objective worthwhile. (In 2004, all the vehicles, trucks, motorcycles and off-road vehicles that consume gasoline in Canada emitted about 98 million tonnes of the gases.)
“The challenge with the transportation sector is finding anything that works to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions,” O’Connor said.
When you look at all other options, there isn’t much low-hanging fruit, he said. There are other fuels that would produce lower greenhouse-gas emissions, but you’d need to buy a redesigned car at the same time. “The nice thing about biofuels, whether it’s ethanol or biodiesel, is you can blend them into the existing fuels and use them in every single car that’s on the road today.”
Dale said carbon dioxide is not the most worrisome greenhouse gas generated in biofuel production.
Nitrous oxide, for example, is about 300 times more potent than CO2. Nitrous oxide is produced naturally in the soil by micro-organisms that are very sensitive to how the land is farmed. So it matters, for example, how much fertilizer farmers use to grow their grains for ethanol, he said.

Part Three examines the economics of biofuels for individual farmers (and tells the particularly interesting stories of canola farmers who power their equipment with canola oil they process themselves).

[Farmer Ken] Herlinveaux estimates it costs about 13 to 15 cents a litre to make the canola oil fuel, if they use low-grade canola. Regular diesel costs about 67 cents per litre for farmers. For someone who uses up to 12,000 litres of fuel a year, that’s a big saving.
Herlinveaux used to make biodiesel with his canola oil, but found his machinery will run just as well on straight canola oil.
While this biofuel literally helps Herlinveaux run his farm, canola growers would like to see the federal government do something that would help them all — adjust the mandate for a higher concentration of renewable fuel in diesel.
“We’d like to see a gradual increase in the mandate levels,” said Tyler Bjornson, vice-president corporate affairs, Canola Council of Canada. The council feels confident growers could meet a mandate of two per cent biodiesel by 2010 and five per cent by 2015, he said.

It’s not clear whether the series is finished with Part Three, which ran today. If not, I’ll point to Part Four tomorrow.

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