Growing Beyond Oil: The 2008 Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit

This year's fifth annual Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit was packed full of interesting speakers, new ideas and predictions for the biofuels sector. Industry leaders gathered from around the country to discuss policy, marketing and the need to look beyond the traditional notions of our fuel needs in an effort to 'grow beyond oil.'
By Khalila Hammond Photos By Brigitte Bouvier | January 15, 2009
The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association hosted the 2008 Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit Dec. 1-3 at the Hilton Lac-Leamy hotel in Gatineau, Québec-a stone's throw from the nation's capital of Ottawa. Themed Growing Beyond Oil, the event addressed the progress, challenges and opportunities the Canadian biofuels market faced in 2008 and its continued expansion in the years ahead.

The summit opened with the Parliamentarian Reception, where industry representatives gathered to network, create new business relationships and learn about companies and technologies that are dedicated to the development of the ethanol and biodiesel industries. Delegates networked and compared notes on how biofuels are viewed in the marketplace. While new research and developments in second-generation biofuels were of great interest, conversations also turned to corn-based ethanol, which is regarded by many as the backbone of the industry. "Corn ethanol still has a good future," says Paul Wheaton, president of AtlanTec BioEnergy Corp. in Nova Scotia. "Contrary to public opinion, it will continue to be a good bridge fuel for many years and even decades before something takes its place. It not only helps local economies but also moves us away from foreign oil."

A political address by Gerry Ritz, minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and minister for the Canadian Wheat Board opened the second day of sessions, which included discussions of opportunities and challenges for ethanol and biodiesel in 2009.

With the food-versus-fuel issue, the global economy and the current uncertainty in the status of the Canadian government on the forefront of the agenda, this year's speakers presented a wealth of knowledge pertaining to the present biofuels industry. 2008 was one of the most difficult years for the biofuels industry, so the theme of growing beyond oil was particularly relevant.

Indirect Land-Use Issue Looms
While the opportunities for ethanol and biodiesel continue to be plentiful with the promise of second-generation renewable fuels, speakers such as Bob Dinneen, president and chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association, Joe Jobe, chief executive officer of the National Biodiesel Board, and Don O'Connor, president of (S&T)2 Consultants Inc., informed conference attendees that challenges still lie ahead for the industry. One of these challenges will be facing a new ethical debate. "Last year, food versus fuel [was the issue], next year [the issue] will be indirect land use changes," Dinneen said referring to the perceived notion of using too much land currently planted to food crops, for fuel production. Similar to the food-versus-fuel debate, the arguments do not present all of the facts. "The modeling efforts undertaken to date are woefully inadequate," O'Connor said, adding that idle land and the production of coproducts are often not considered. "We have seen a widening of the gap between developed and developing countries in terms of agricultural productivity and competitiveness," he says. "If we increase agricultural productivity, we don't need more land to produce biofuels." Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of all, according to Dinneen, is complacency within the general public. "I hope that we [can] recognize that our continued reliance on petroleum is perilous," he says.

Despite these hurdles, Dinneen, Jobe, O'Connor and others believe that 2009 could be a year of reinvention for the industry. For biodiesel producers for example, this year saw the end of the "splash and dash" loophole, which allowed sly exporters to be subsidized once by U.S. taxpayers and once by Europeans. On the ethanol side, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC have all committed to producing flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) from 50 percent of their vehicle lines by 2012, which will ensure a greater amount of FFVs on the road and therefore the need for more E85 refueling stations.

The summit's luncheon keynote speaker, Robert Zubrin, author of the book, "Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil," received considerable attention.

Zubrin illustrated how money spent on fuel, which is now being sent to countries with ties to terrorism, can instead be used to help farmers in North America and abroad. He believes that switching to alcohol-based fuels will help safeguard homeland security and provide solutions for global warming and Third World development. Using a card game, trump suit analogy, Zubrin described the energy industry as a kind of strategy. There are four suits-oil, coal, natural gas and biomass-and right now oil is the trump suit, he says.

Zubrin made it clear that it is imperative we find a "new energy trump card," and indicated that biofuels could be the answer in our effort to displace our dependence on oil.

Many other suggestions such as implementing a cap-and-trade system were also discussed as options, which speaker Dave McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy believes is the key to the long-term reduction of emissions in North America. Implementing a carbon policy however is still a few years away, and is fully dependent on the Canadian federal government. Currently, the Conservative government supports the development of a cap-and-trade system, which it proposes to implement between 2010 and 2015.

Industry Advancements
The promise of new technologies and the production of second-generation biofuels shed light on the expansion of the industry. Enerkem's waste-to-fuel facility in Edmonton, Alberta, is set to revolutionize the industry and urban centers across Canada by creating a link between waste management and renewable fuels. On the economic side, developing the industry from a financial perspective was also discussed to encourage advancements in the renewable fuels sector. "Many people thought that with all the bad press, there was no money available for first-generation technologies, but that is not the case," says Vicky Sharpe, president and chief executive officer of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a federal initiative whose mission is to build a sustainable development technology industry in Canada. According to SDTC, $1.2 billion in public funding has been invested in next-generation technology in the areas of enzymatic hydrolysis, gasification, algae and biobutanol. This is a significant amount of money as next-generation fuels will account for 3.4 percent to 5.5 percent of the market share or global biofuels production by 2014. "More than $200 million in venture capital has been invested in 16 Canadian companies [so far]," Sharpe says.

Five companies were recognized for outstanding achievement in the industry at the Green Fuels Awards Reception and Gala. Esteban Chornet, founder of Enerkem, received an award for outstanding dedication to the advancement of renewable fuels in Canada. GM received the achievement in promoting the use of renewable fuels in Canada award and new producer awards were presented to Integrated Grain Processors Co-op and Terra Grain Fuels, for their efforts in developing the biofuels industry. As the industry continues to wrestle with opponents, it is also developing a strong foundation in policy, marketing, technology, and research and development. "Economists tell us of the future and historians tell us of the past," said Jeff Passmore, incoming chair for the CRFA in his closing remarks. "It's only the present that's confusing." And however true that may be, the overall attitude among delegates at the summit continues to remain positive. "I always look forward to the summit and being around people in the industry," said Gary Malone, general manager of AtlanTec BioEnergy. "It gives me the opportunity to interact with like-minded people who understand the benefits of ethanol."

Khalila Hammond is the managing editor of Bioenergy Canada. Reach her at or (519) 576-4500. This feature appeared in the January issue of Bioenergy Canada.
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