Biofuels: Food vs fuel? – Waterloo Region Record

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There is no single, simple or cheap replacement for fossil fuels to provide all our energy needs. Our future depends on putting every option through an objective, detailed lifecycle analysis to ensure it really does reduce the greenhouse gas emissions it’s intended to. Is ethanol from corn one of them?
Along with targets for ownership of zero-emission vehicles, Canada introduced Clean Fuel Regulations that require “gasoline and diesel primary suppliers (i.e. producers and importers) to reduce the carbon intensity of the gasoline and diesel they produce in, and import into, Canada.” By 2030, our fuel will be 15 per cent ethanol.
This will reduce greenhouse gases, but it’s still “less than one-fifth of the reductions required for the light-duty fleet to (meet) Canada’s pledge under the Paris Agreement.” (See “Well-to-wheel greenhouse gas implications of mid-level ethanol blend deployment in Canada’s light-duty fleet” on the Science Direct website.)
Biofuels are not new, and Canada has become a global leader in biofuel technology development and commercialization.
Gerald Kutney, debunker of climate crisis lies, (see #climatebrawl on Twitter) compiled a fascinating history of Canadian biofuels from 1867 to 2017. Unsurprisingly, in the early days, wood was used to produce methanol (wood alcohol), acetate of lime and charcoal, and molasses to produce industrial alcohol.
In the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, the federal government provided funding for innovative projects that used waste wood material (biomass) in the forestry industry to reduce their oil consumption. The program acronym was, quite aptly, FIRE, for Forest Industry Renewable Energy.
In 2005, Canada started making biodiesel using canola, soy, animal fats and waste vegetable oil. You may remember a University of Waterloo student who converted his car to run on waste vegetable oil that smelled like french fries when he drove it. But I’d personally like to see Doc Brown’s time-travelling DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” movies that runs on waste.
Then there’s corn.
It is Ontario’s second largest crop in acreage after soy. Of the more than two million acres of grain corn that is planted in the province, 18 per cent is for human consumption, and 45 per cent for animal feed, with the remaining 37 per cent for ethanol and industrial uses, reports Grain Farmers of Ontario.
It takes one bushel (about 25 kilograms) of corn to produce 10 litres of ethanol and almost eight kilograms of distiller grains that are used as cattle feed. But should we really be replacing fuel for food on our precious farmland? And is ethanol providing a net benefit to deal with our climate crisis?
Depends who you ask.
An American study released this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal found that “the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) in the United States is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24 per cent higher.”
A U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis from 2021 reports the opposite, that “the greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are about 39 per cent lower than gasoline on energy equivalent basis.”
A lifecycle analysis is no small task; and not every location or situation is equal, especially if forests are being cleared or the ethanol corn is replacing food crops.
And other options are available besides corn. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has a study that identified the volume of biomass from crop residues available by county. Research also continues on alternatives to corn through the University of Waterloo’s Maren Oelbermann’s Soil Ecosystems Dynamics.
Why use precious farmland exclusively for biofuels when crop residues and woody, cellulose vegetation grown could be processed to provide valuable local energy?
When it comes down to it, isn’t growing corn grain specifically for ethanol just prolonging our dependence on fossil-fueled vehicles?
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