Category Archives: biodiesel

Who’s to blame for the biofuels mess

It’s almost not worth commenting on, but I can’t resist pointing out that the lead of this Lorne Gunter column in the Edmonton Journal is simply false.

Note to environmentalists: Remember, you were the ones who demanded biofuels the loudest.

Actually, Midwestern corn farmers, plus drivers complaining about high gasoline prices. Most of the rest of the column on the havoc being wreaked by biofuels production from food is bang on, but no evidence whatsoever is advanced in support of this particular lead.

Good news about switchgrass

(Photo credit: “meadow4.jpg“, Flickr/Doctor Swan.)

Switchgrass is a major source of cellulosic ethanol, which has much greater theoretical potential as a biofuel replacement for gasoline than corn-based ethanol, which is a subsidy scheme for politicians to drum up votes in farm country.

The trick is that while a lot of people are working on it, nobody’s come up with a commercializable system for turning switchgrass and other high-cellulose plants into a (relatively) clean, pumpable liquid fuel you could run a car on.

Here’s a step in the right direction, though:

Previous studies on switchgrass plots suggested that ethanol made from the plant would yield anywhere from 343% to 700% of the energy put into growing the crop and processing it into biofuel. But these studies were based on lab-scale plots of about 5 square meters. So 6 years ago, Kenneth Vogel, a geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Nebraska, and colleagues set out to enlist farmers for a much larger evaluation. Farmers planted switchgrass on 10 farms, each of which was between 3 and 9 hectares. They then tracked the inputs they used–diesel for farm equipment and transporting the harvested grasses, for example–as well as the amount of grass they raised over a 5-year period. After crunching the numbers, Vogel and his colleagues found that ethanol produced from switchgrass yields 540% of the energy used to grow, harvest, and process it into ethanol. Equally important, the researchers found that the switchgrass is carbon neutral, as it absorbs essentially the same amount of greenhouse gases while it’s growing as it emits when burned as fuel.

Still just a sandbox example, but a good one.

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.

Subsidizing billionaires

Corncob BobI’d like to see a big renewable-fuels project smack in the heart of Alberta as a good thing, but I can’t. The Calgary Herald reported today on the progress of what’s supposedly the biggest bio-fuels refinery in North America, planned for Innisfail, between Calgary and Edmonton. It’ll make ethanol from corn, crush canola for transformation into biodiesel, and yes, actually refine biodiesel, too.

The Herald has learned that Dominion Energy Services, LLC along with New York-based private equity affiliates Riverstone Holdings LLC and The Carlyle Group will today formally announce plans for a 400-acre site outside of Innisfail for the project.

“The rail infrastructure is massive, that’s why we needed so much land,” said Dominion president and chief executive Curtis Chandler. “We have to be able to take unit car trains in, which are 111 cars, to cut down on our transportation costs.”

(Sounds like this is the announcement, doesn’t it?)

Note the Carlyle Group’s presence on the list. The corporate home of semi-retired conservative power brokers and various members of the Bush family see that the future of energy isn’t just in oil. If you want to be conspiracy-minded about it, you might see a connection between conservative governments’ legal mandates for ethanol in auto gas and the Carlyle Group’s investment in a plant that makes it.

This isn’t new — the Herald has reported on this before and noted at the time that the Alberta government intended to subsidize production to the tune of 14 cents a litre. With the plan being to produce about 374 million litres of of fuel a year, that’s an annual subsidy of $52 million, assuming all the plant’s production is eligible.

Leave aside completely, for the purposes of this discussion, the growing concern about ethanol’s driving up the price of food in the Third World (a serious problem) and the poor prospects for energy efficiency in corn-based ethanol (likewise a serious problem).

Why on earth is a provincial government paying even $1 million for this thing? The private equity investors — Carlyle and Riverstone — are multibillion-dollar operations, already making money hand over fist with investments in the oilpatch. When the price of oil climbs past $70 and eventually $80 a barrel, roughly the point where biofuels become competitive, the actual owners of the plant are going to need extra arms to grab all the cash. Surely it’s worth a flyer of a few million now.

Is Alberta concerned that the partners will build their biofuels refinery somewhere else? Let them, if it makes more economic sense to do it there. The last thing a rich jurisdiction like Alberta should be doing is using its wealth to artificially inflate its economy even further.