Biofuels can be environmental
boon, but gas guzzling must
first end: Experts
Monday, March 19, 2007
Monday, March 19, 2007
TORONTO - In an era of soaring gas prices and surprise shortages at the pump, biofuels paint a rosy picture of the future: they`re renewable, made from waste products and can significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
However, if renewable fuels are ever going to save the day in a world of tightening oil supply and growing concern over the environment, Canadians first must mend their gas-guzzling ways, experts say.
Alternative fuels have been attracting a lot of federal attention - as well as money. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced funding for several green initiatives, including research on hydrogen, fuel cells and "carbon capture" technology that can strip emissions of carbon dioxide.
But before industry and governments start putting too much stock in emerging biofuel technologies, Canadians have to make some fundamental changes, analysts say.
"Conventional crude is in a delicate balance between supply and demand right now; we`re not finding more," said industry analyst Robb Moss.
"We all have to pull up our socks and try and figure out ways of consuming less."
Only in recent days have the ramifications of a serious gas shortage in Ontario, largely the result of a fire that shut down a key part of Imperial Oil`s refinery in Nanticoke, Ont., stopped reverberating. Stations that were closed for nearly a month are open again, and Imperial says the plant is again operating at full capacity.
But the shortage gave Ontario motorists just a taste of what a gasoline shortage might mean - and just how vulnerable the existing supply might be.
"We`ve got to stop the addiction from growing," said Peter Tertzakian, an analyst and author of the book "A Thousand Barrels."
"Then, once you get over that, then you have to start thinking about substitution."
That substitution could come in many forms, but the two renewable fuels that get the most attention from advocates are biodiesel and ethanol.
Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils, waste cooking oil or animal fats. Over its life cycle it produces 64 to 92 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is not yet commercially available in Canada.
Ethanol is made mainly from corn and wheat and is a liquid alcohol blended with gasoline in different concentrations. E-10 blend, with 10 per cent ethanol, is currently sold at Sunoco stations across Ontario. Natural Resources Canada says ethanol production reduces greenhouse gas emissions because the crops used to make the ethanol absorb carbon dioxide.
"We see renewables as playing an up and coming role . . . (but) they`re not a panacea," said Carmen Dybwad, president of the Energy Council of Canada.
"If we had a silver bullet right now we`d all be glomming on to it. The reality is that we`re going to need some sort of an appropriate mix as we move forward."
Biofuels are not a miracle solution to tight fuel supply issues, Tertzakian said.
"Are they going to completely replace or even make a meaningful dent in the overall consumption of gasoline? I would say not any time soon, that`s for sure."
The real impact will come from the rising price of gas, Tertzakian said.
Research suggests gas would likely have to cost more than two dollars per litre before commuters and motorists get serious about measures like carpooling and public transit.
Dave Martin of Greenpeace Canada, which supports the principle of developing biofuels, also cautioned against seeing biofuels as a catch-all solution.
"At this point, I think that we tend to be heading in a bad direction because most of the ethanol that`s being produced is using corn as a feedstock," said Martin, who wants Ottawa to push for the use of cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from wheat straw and corn stalks.
Cellulosic ethanol is often touted as the answer to those concerned using corn and wheat for fuel would comprimise the food supply or drive up agricultural prices.
Still, the day when all cars are powered by such environmentally friendly energy is still far off, experts agree.
"It`s very nice to talk about these sorts of biofuels, but the issue of scale is a big one," Tertzakian said. "It`s not easy to replicate the very efficient supply chain that`s already in place to serve the current pattern of consumption."
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