By Annie Webb and Donald Smith
There are many risks in placing too much emphasis on fossil fuels as the answer to Canada’s energy needs. On the environmental front, global CO2 levels recently surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm), compared to 280 ppm in the pre-industrial era. These are the highest levels the earth has seen in four million years. The concentration of CO2 is projected to reach an alarming 530 ppm in 2050 and 780 ppm in 2100. Growing evidence suggests that the marked increase in frequency and intensity of severe weather is linked to climate change. Floods like that seen in Calgary this summer are projected to become a lot more common and severe if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels continue to increase.
The continued growth of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is not the only risk associated with placing too much weight on the fossil fuel sector. The oil sands, although they may be the world’s third largest fossil fuel reserves, are essentially limited to selling only to the U.S. due to the existing pipeline infrastructure. However, technological advances have boosted production in both Canada and the U.S., reducing the market share for Canadian oil. In pursuit of new markets, rail and road have been increasingly used for transport, yet these carry serious risks as the recent Lac-Mégantic disaster has shown. Proposed new pipelines have had their share of controversy related to fears of potential spills, not to mention that the enormous investment in time and money required to build them would commit Canada to several more decades of fossil-oil dependency.
Low-emission renewable bioenergy is widely regarded as a feasible substitute for fossil fuels, leading to long-term energy security and environmental sustainability. Advanced biofuels have been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 90 per cent compared to fossil fuels, while emissions from oil sands production are estimated at eight to 37 per cent higher than conventional crude. Canada must make the transition to renewable energy, and its large reserves of oil and gas provide an opportunity to do so in the context of a stable existing energy supply.
Canada has the know-how to make this happen. BioFuelNet Canada, a federal Network of Centres of Excellence, brings together academia, industry and government to accelerate research and development, and address barriers that stand in the way of commercialization of “advanced” biofuels, where “advanced” indicates the use of biomass sourced from non-food materials. Using waste biomass instead of food materials ensures that biofuel production does not threaten global food security, contribute to rising food prices or use large areas of high quality arable land. The production and use of advanced biofuels also release significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than food-based biofuels. Advanced biofuels represent a highly promising opportunity to put to use Canada’s vast quantities of agricultural and forestry waste, plus municipal solid waste available throughout the country. Biofuel production can also aid with economic diversification, rural development, waste management, job creation and improvement in human health.
Canada has been meeting its current federal ethanol blending mandate (five per cent ethanol blended into gasoline), in large part through U.S. corn ethanol imports. As much of the economic opportunity is currently occurring south of the border, Canada should be maximizing its potential on domestic soil. However, future growth in the biofuels sector must now come from advanced biofuels technology.
Enerkem, a Montreal-based company that is a partner of BioFuelNet, is opening Canada’s first commercial-scale waste-to-biofuel plant in Edmonton this fall, in collaboration with the City of Edmonton and Alberta Innovates. Enerkem and Greenfield Ethanol are building a second full-scale facility in Varennes, Que., which is set to open in 2014. Each of these plants will produce 38 million litres per year of advanced biofuels and drastically reduce the amount of municipal solid waste going to landfills or incinerators.
In order to help grow the advanced biofuels sector, federal support for advanced biofuels technology is critical, especially for the early stages of commercialization. This support is necessary to attract private investment to finance new plants in the first few years. The NextGen Biofuels Fund from Sustainable Development Technology Canada provides capital assistance for new advanced biofuels plants, but there are currently no operating incentives available for advanced biofuels in Canada. First generation plants (which make biofuel from corn or wheat) receive an operating incentive of $0.10 per litre declining to $0.03 per litre until 2017. A federal operating incentive that is higher, on a per litre basis, for advanced biofuels would help support higher capital costs and technology risks associated with the commercialization of these new technologies.
Canada should be using its oil sands resources strategically to transition to clean energy, for a more economically and environmentally sustainable future. Instead of putting all its energy eggs in the oil sands basket, Canada needs to ensure that it is a leader in the world’s future energy markets, providing a secure and sustainable source of energy for future Canadian families. This means reducing dependence on fossil fuels over the long term, moving to a low carbon economy and increasing the support for the most promising renewable energies.