The debate over biofuels

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) – Over the past few years, production of ethanol, bio-diesel and other bio-fuels has expanded dramatically in response to increasing concerns about energy security and climate change. Policy supports have been established, and Canada is among those encouraging ethanol and bio-diesel production.

A growing chorus of naysayers is challenging both the climate change benefits and the use of biomass itself for energy production. Are they right in their assertions that bio-fuels actually produce more greenhouse gases than conventional fossil fuels, and that using biomass to make energy in wealthy, industrialized nations like Canada threatens the food security of the world’s poorer nations? For Canada bio-fuels are an essential part of our economic and energy future and we believe that bio-fuels production in Canada could actually improve the viability of Canada’s farms and forest industries without significant effects on food exports.

Bio-Mass and Bio-Fuels

Bio-fuel is what we call biomass when we use it to produce energy – like burning logs in a fireplace for example. Biomass for energy includes harvesting residues from trees and crops and plants grown entirely for energy; for example corn for Ethanol. It also includes animal waste and fats. For biomass to be a ‘sustainable’ energy source, the stock of biomass must not deplete. The global sustainable bio-energy potential is estimated at ~100EJ per year of which 40% is from forestry residues and by-products, 17 % from agricultural waste and 36% from energy crops. By way of comparison, Canada’s total energy demand, including all the fossil fuels and electricity we use, is about 12 EJ.

Greenhouse Gases from Biomass and Bio-fuels

Greenhouse gases from biomass and biofuels include carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. The main GHG associated with bio-fuels is CO2. In fact the climate change argument for bio-fuels using agri-biomass and forest biomass is that because no net CO2 emissions are released to the air (other than emissions due to production and transport of the biomass and bio-fuels) they are considered to be ‘climate-neutral’. “But”, say the opponents of bio-fuels, “the emissions created from production and transportation must be counted, so bio-fuels are not climate neutral.”

Is that a fair comment? The situation is a bit more complicated than that because there is a difference between “waste biomass” and biomass grown specifically for energy generation (energy crops). Waste biomass from agriculture and the forest industry comes about as a result of growing food crops and making wood products like two by fours and paper not as a result of producing bio-fuels. There is a much stronger case for greenhouse gas emissions from the production process itself though, because for fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel, fossil fuels and electricity are used.

Even so, there is no inherent reason why some of the biomass feedstock could not be used for process heating or, for that matter why transportation of biomass feedstock could not be accomplished by bio-fuelled trucks and trains.

What about methane, the other big Climate Change criminal? Here the situation is extraordinarily favourable for bio-fuels.

Methane is a much more potent GHG than CO2 and a good proportion of Canada’s methane emissions are the result of human waste in the forms of landfill gas or sewage gases. Capturing and using this waste gas supply for energy would generate more CO2 but would have net positive benefit for Climate Change. And there is also the potential to use a good proportion (probably about 40%) of municipal solid waste to produce energy rather than take up space in landfills and generate methane.

Having said all that, we must not lose sight of the overall benefits to GHG emissions of replacing fossil fuels in our cars, trucks, buses, and power generation plants – which is the main reason why bio-fuel production is growing.

How much Biomass is there in Canada?

  • Biomass in Forests: Canada has millions of hectares of managed forests and extensive tests have shown that a small percentage of forest growth is harvested for forest products to ensure sustainability of the standing timber base.

  • Biomass in Agriculture: There are about 35 million hectares of seeded, arable land in Canada, over 50% of it is used for wheat and hay production. Prairie grain crops produce an estimated 32 million tonnes of straw residue per year. About 85% of that straw must be put back into the soil to maintain soil fertility, leaving approximately 5 million tonnes / year available to make liquid bio-fuels.

    In the late 1800’s significant land areas in Canada were cleared and converted to subsistence farming despite the poor quality of the soils. Now that modern agriculture provides a food surplus, these areas are no longer farmed. These areas could be used to grow fast-growing tree crops or high-yielding perennial grasses.

  • Biomass in municipal waste: Another potentially significant resource of biomass is municipal wastes; solid waste, landfill gas, and methane from sewage. Of the millions of tonnes of municipal waste produced per year in Canada, only a small percentage is used for energy. Most solid waste goes to increasingly scarce landfill sites, landfill gas and sewer gas vents into the atmosphere and, by the way is significant contributors to Canada’s overall GHG emissions.

Economics AND the Environment

Recent studies conducted by the Globe Foundation’s Endless Energy project show that BC alone has the potential to produce fully one third of its entire energy needs from biomass waste and energy crops on a sustainable basis, without in any way harming food production or forest industry exports.

The situation for Canada as a whole has not been studied in the same depth, but it would be reasonable to assume that at least 25% of Canada’s energy needs could be met from bio-fuels with little or not impact on food production or forest industry exports.

In fact the reverse may well be true – bio-fuels production could actually strengthen our agricultural and forest industries. It is no secret that Canada’s farmers and forest industries have faced strong, subsidized international competition for decades that has depressed commodity prices in world markets much to the detriment of Canada’s biomass related industries.

It is only recently that our Prairie farmers have begun to see improvements in commodity prices. Young, entrepreneurial farmers on the Canadian Prairies are looking increasingly to value added production like bio-fuels to increase their incomes. And the forest industries are looking hard at how they can cut energy costs by using even more biomass waste to fuel their operations.

Who knows, maybe bio-fuels production could become a major profit centre for Canada’s forest industries and farmers that might halt and reverse the trends of plant closures and bigger farms with untold benefits for Canada’s rural communities. And increasing use of municipal waste as an energy source may not only cut harmful methane emissions it could also become a significant source of revenue for cash strapped municipalities.

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