Canadian Report Card: Passing & Growing

Diversification and unification were underlying themes at the annual Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit.
By Kris Bevill | January 14, 2011

The Canadian renewable fuels industry is growing up and out, as evidenced by the industry’s report card released by the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association during its annual summit, held Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Gatineau, Quebec. The summit’s theme, “Growing Beyond Oil,” emphasized the industry’s desire to become its own force in a country that is a net exporter of oil. The industry report card proved it deserves to be taken seriously.

Canada’s biofuels industry has experienced steady growth over the past five years to a current annual capacity of almost 2 billion liters (528 MMgy). The CRFA says $2.3 billion has been spent on the construction of new production facilities during that time span, resulting in $3 billion of economic activity throughout the nation. Thousands of new jobs have been created through the expansion of the industry, many of them in the rural areas of Canada where jobs can otherwise be hard to come by. This was a talking point for many of the approximate 300 conference attendees, many of whom had experienced firsthand the benefit biofuels can bring to rural communities.

Gordon Quaiattini, CRFA president, highlighted these accomplishments during his keynote speech to conference attendees, but the majority of his speech focused on the industry’s 2010 highlight—the passage of Canada’s first federal renewable fuels standard (RFS). The standard became effective Dec. 15 and requires all fuel blended in Canada to contain 5 percent renewable fuels. Ethanol, biodiesel and petroleum-based biofuels qualify as renewable fuels for this portion of the RFS. Quaiattini told conference attendees the mandate makes Canada the fifth largest market for ethanol in the world and that the nation will now consume 2 billion liters of renewable fuels annually. “This is truly a milestone accomplishment in the history of Canada’s renewable fuels industry and I am sincerely grateful to be on this podium at this time looking out at all of you and saying ‘thank you’ for your excellence and achievement,” he said.

It didn’t take long for the mood of the conference to shift from what has been accomplished to what remains to be achieved, however. Quaiattini pointed out that the nation’s House of Parliament was located just a few miles from the conference site and said that hosting a national biofuels conference so near to the government’s center was meant to send a loud signal to policymakers. “We remind policymakers—elected and otherwise—that our industry is here and we are delivering,” he said. “Our presence here is a clear reminder to the federal government that the partnership pursued over the past 15 years has worked—and worked well. Now is the time to turn to the important and exciting work ahead.”

Canola Belt Concerns

At the time the conference was held, Canada’s government had yet to finalize a start date for the national B2 mandate. Many conference attendees were biodiesel producers and equipment providers and all seemed intent on securing a firm start date for the mandate. The CRFA also said finalizing that mandate’s start would be its No. 1 priority for the short term. Canada’s biodiesel industry, not unlike its counterpart in the U.S., has been paralyzed by a lack of demand for its product. While the U.S. has its Corn Belt, however, Canada has vast canola fields, a seemingly ample supply of feedstock for a domestic biodiesel industry that hasn’t yet had the chance to put this wealth of feedstock to use domestically. Robert Hunter, vice president of communications for the Canola Council of Canada, pointed out in his presentation that Canada’s 45,000 canola farmers export 1.6 million metric tons of canola seed and oil annually. Quaiattini said that there is yet to be a large commercial-scale biodiesel plant built in Canada and emphasized the group’s efforts to focus on expanding the biodiesel industry in the coming year.

Advancing Beyond First-Gen

Throughout the three-day event, it was clear that all attendees agreed there must be continued support for first-generation biofuels, both through increased federal RFS mandates as well as continued financial incentives. But it was also acknowledged by most speakers and attendees that the ultimate goal is to pursue advanced biofuels development. First-generation support is necessary to spur that development, but if Canada is to ever truly grow beyond oil its best course is through a robust advanced biofuels and bioproducts industry.

Canada’s immense forestry sector presents multiple opportunities for cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuel/bioproducts companies. This was the focus of a lengthy afternoon session that included panel members from the pulp and paper industry, the Forest Products Association of Canada and UOP, a Honeywell Co.

Paul Lansbergen, director of energy, economics and climate change for the Forest Products Association, presented findings from the Bio-Pathways Project, which was conducted in order to assist  in determining its best options for transformation. Phase 1 of the project, which was completed in 2009, identified biorefineries as an ideal reformation for pulp and paper mills because the production processes can be easily combined. “Instead of just making pulp and paper, it could serve its own energy needs through biomass cogeneration and it could also make other energy products as well as chemicals,” he said. “You can make ethanol, you can make pulp, you can have a paper machine on site, you can make some chemicals such as furfural and lignin, which you can further refine into other niche chemicals.”

While there are several cellulosic ethanol companies that plan to use wood and wood wastes as feedstocks, Canada’s forestry sector could find more potential partners by focusing on bioproducts and other fuels, according to Omar Irani, senior business manager for Honeywell/UOP. His presentation focused on relaying information UOP has received from its customers, mainly members of the petrochemical industry. Not surprisingly, that industry’s wish list includes drop-in replacement fuels that can be used in the existing infrastructure. “They want a fuel replacement,” he said. “A lot of our customers view ethanol as an additive—that’s just the way they see it.” UOP acted on its customers’ feedback and has formed a partnership with Ensyn Technologies Inc. to produce pyrolysis heating oil, and potentially drop-in ready transport fuels, from woody biomass.

Alain Bourdages, director of energy development and strategy for pulp and paper company AbitibiBowater Inc., painted a broader picture of what the pulp and paper industry is looking for in a partner. He was frank about the shrinking demand for his industry’s traditional products and about AbitibiBowater’s recent financial difficulties. According to him, biofuels and bioproducts offer an ideal opportunity for pulp and paper companies to diversify away from their traditional products and AbitibiBowater is willing to entertain any product partnership, as long as the potential partner can provide the specific technical expertise. “We’re a forest products company,” he said. “We’re not an IP [intellectual property] developer. We don’t do a whole lot of research and development. Our approach is basically to bring what we have to processes that are close to maturity and bring in that extra push of having the feedstock, the security, the infrastructure and other elements. Our interest is bringing as much value out of the forest as we can. So if it’s ethanol, it’s ethanol. If it’s biodiesel, it’s biodiesel. If it’s chemicals only, it’s chemicals only. We’re really not that attached to any given product.”

Quaiattini also paid specific attention to advanced biofuels development in his remarks, saying that one of the CRFA’s long-term goals is to work with the government to add advanced biofuels categories to future RFS mandates. Politicians who participated in a panel during the final day of the conference appeared to be very interested in next-generation biofuels, but largely unaware of the hurdles facing the emerging industry. This was especially apparent when an audience member questioned the panel as to why there continues to be a lack of policy support for bioproducts that can be produced at biofuels facilities. One panel member suggested the first step in forming policy support for these industries is to inform politicians that they exist.

Working Together

Canada’s biofuels industry remains a drop in the bucket when compared to the United States’ industry and many panel presentations looked to the U.S. for policy and demand predictions. Canada’s biofuels industry has made significant headway in the past 12 months, but its current capacity is only about 4 percent of the United States’ production capacity, which means that U.S. producers still largely influence the action of their northern neighbors. The status of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit extension was still unknown at the time of the CRFA summit and conversation between sessions often focused on what might happen to Canada’s industry if the U.S. were to let its credit lapse. Many attendees and speakers also said monetizing carbon is a long-term goal that would benefit Canada’s biofuels industry, but it’s unlikely a carbon policy will be put in place unless the U.S. does it first.

There is no question that Canada’s biofuels industry, no matter the size, continues to be a collaborative effort among ethanol, biodiesel, advanced biofuels and policymakers. Industry representatives almost seemed to relish their status as the underdogs of sort and appeared ready to seize the task at hand, which is to continue to advance the industry. “We have tasks yet to complete,” Quaiattini admitted. “But there can be no serious doubt that we have met and exceeded every test asked of us by government. Growing beyond oil isn’t a promise. It is not an aspiration. It is a statement of fact and a description of what we’ve done to date. When we look to the future and the incredible promise of advanced biofuels, we know that our best days are those yet to come.”

Author: Kris Bevill
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
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