Honoring the GHGenius

Don O'Connor has the breadth and width of knowledge that is second to none in Canada. His analysis of biofuel plants' greenhouse gas emissions has been especially important to the global industry.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | February 05, 2008
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On occasion, individuals are recognized for a lifetime of achievement and contribution to an industry. The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association awards the Green Fuel Industry Award at the Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit, held in December. "Every year the association looks to recognize someone in the ethanol and biodiesel world who has dedicated service to the cause and has worked to advance the industry in a number of different forums," says Gordon Quaiattini, president of the CRFA. "We look every year at candidates who were early champions, early supporters, working to make a difference, and should be recognized for the contribution they have made to advance the industry in Canada."

At the 2007 summit in Quebec City, Quebec, the CRFA recognized Don O'Connor, president of (S&T)2 Consultants Inc. and a mechanical engineer who got his start in renewable fuels while working for an oil company. "Don is a very serious, very thoughtful advocate for the industry," Quaiattini says. "I've only been in my current position for a few months, but he has been a huge asset to me as far as his knowledge of where the industry is going in Canada and the world. We rely on him—as do the government and ethanol projects—to get advice on feedstock, infrastructure, regulatory issues, legislative language, attracting investment and industry growth. His breadth and width of knowledge are second to none in Canada. We'd be hard-pressed to find someone else like him." Quaiattini also expresses admiration for O'Connor's commitment to the industry. "It's not easy to grow a new industry," he says. "In Canada, we're not near where the United States is in size and scope. Yet he's been at it a long time. Commitment and perseverance is indicative of his character that he's given to the industry for a lot of years."

O'Connor got involved with renewable fuels when he began working at Mohawk Oil Co. in 1981, when ethanol was first produced and added to gasoline in Canada. He was part of the group that commercialized the use of wheat in Canada as an ethanol feedstock. While it's difficult for him to say what his greatest contribution has been to the industry, he notes to EPM the perseverance through the 1980s and 1990s when biofuels weren't economically attractive as especially challenging.

His experience has made him an expert to call on in many instances. Through his consulting firm, he provides advice on fuels, transportation issues and greenhouse gas emissions to a number of provincial governments, several Canadian federal government departments and international agencies and governments. He has also consulted for a number of companies developing new technologies for alternative-fueled vehicles, and new transportation fuel processes and facilities.

In addition, O'Connor has served on or chaired many government advisory panels on transportation fuels and bioenergy, industry associations, and community foundations. He served on the CRFA board for several years and worked closely with the Canadian government to develop its ethanol policy.

O'Connor's consulting firm also analyzes greenhouse gas emissions for both the private and government sectors. He studies greenhouse gas emissions and energy balance—both formulated from life cycle analyses. Over the past eight years, O'Connor and his firm developed the GHGenius Model for Natural Resources Canada. The models and analyses he has created help to shape policy and give the private sector solid data to make decisions. As the world shifts to a carbon conscious economy, his work may prove to be even more valuable.

source: (S&T)2

Analyzing Ethanol
Some people in the ethanol industry hear "energy balance" and immediately feel defensive. Life cycle analyses—conflicting, unfavorable or otherwise—have sometimes been a thorn in the side of the ethanol industry. Opponents have tried to fight ethanol subsidies using negative energy balance studies, or have tried to disprove claims of improved emissions. But not all studies are unfavorable, especially for ethanol production that actually does have favorable profiles. Therein lies the issue: Many studies have been published that address either the energy balance or the emissions profile of ethanol, and the results tend to vary across the board (see Figure 1). How can the fuel be seriously evaluated if scientists are in such disagreement?

Life cycle analyses are important tools that aid in the decision making process for governments, lenders, investors and project developers. "We need policy makers who have an understanding of what some of the issues are," O'Connor says. "Of course, that's not an easy thing to do, so we need to make sure that we can explain the complexities of some of these issues in a way that people, who aren't experts, can understand. In general, in Canada, we've made a lot of progress over the past few years getting people to understand what the issues are and how complex they are, and there tends to be a greater acceptance that maybe this ethanol can have a positive impact."

O'Connor says it's always appropriate to analyze both emissions and energy balance—especially when setting policy. "Society doesn't make decisions just based on energy or just based on greenhouse gas emissions," O'Connor says. "You have to take other factors into account such as impact on local air quality, economics, social issues and resource issues, and do a multidimensional analysis to ensure that this is the right thing to do. All of those things need to be taken into consideration when you're developing policy."

The multidimensional analysis is just one step. The findings must be put into perspective. He points to the United States' fossil fuel consumption as an example. To reduce crude oil imports, the United States must look at all alternatives, including coal to liquids and shale oil extraction. "You need to be looking at the energy balance and greenhouse gas emissions from all of those alternatives and put all of that data through all of your filters: energy, greenhouse gas emissions, economics and regional pollution. When you do that, you find that ethanol or biodiesel isn't necessarily that bad, even if you only get 50 percent more energy out than goes into the system. That's not an awful lot different than some of the oil sands operations that we have in Canada, and it's probably better than making crude oil from oil shale (see Figure 2)."

Figure 2

source: (S&T)2

What is the best way to analyze fuel? Probably by some other analysis, O'Connor says. "There is no such thing as a perfect study, which is part of the whole problem," he says. "Decision makers are looking for the one perfect answer. When you do these studies and where you do these studies has a huge impact on what the results are." He says the same fuel in the United States would likely have a different greenhouse gas calculation than in Canada or Europe because of the differences in the industrial infrastructure. "When you do a greenhouse gas emissions analysis or an energy balance, the answer is very specific to that particular point in time and that particular location," O'Connor says (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3

Figure 4
source: (S&T)2

Why the Differences
When, where and how a study is done greatly influences the results and explains why many ethanol studies have such diverse results. The timing matters because efficiencies change. "Most of the big, easy-to-get-at sources of crude oil have already been found, so the energy required to make crude oil tends to increase as time goes on," he says. "Whereas with ethanol production, as plants get more efficient and they get better enzymes, the energy required to make ethanol goes down over time."
Differing definitions, as in the case of energy balance studies, can be another reason for confusion. Two of the most common measures are the energy produced divided by the total energy consumed, and the energy produced divided by the fossil energy consumed. O'Connor says there are issues with both measures, and confusion arises when some people compare the first for one type of fuel with the second for another type of fuel. To get the true picture, the analysis should look at the energy displaced as well as the total energy and the fossil energy consumed.

Yet another reason for differences among studies is the system boundaries—what is included and what is not considered. The primary factors included within an energy balance study are fuel dispensing, fuel distribution and storage, fuel production, feedstock transmission, feedstock recovery, agriculture and chemical manufacture and coproduct credits. In an analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, additional factors must be considered: fertilizer application, soil carbon changes and aboveground biomass changes.

Sometimes researchers include inputs that that are fairly inconsequential. "It's questionable if you need to include the energy that went into building the infrastructure—the plant, tractors and trucks," O'Connor says. "The plant numbers turn out to be quite small. A number of studies amortize energy requirements over the life of the plant; the numbers end up being 1 percent or 2 percent of the life cycle emissions associated with that particular fuel. That's pretty common actually for oil refineries as well as for ethanol and biodiesel plants. The materials going into tractors and trucks turns out to be a relatively small number in the overall scheme as well."

Another relatively small number is the human input, such as how much energy the farmer consumed in a meal. "I don't think that's a particularly appropriate boundary because I believe that person would be living and doing something else, even if he wasn't making biofuels. All of that energy should be showing up in both your references to man the system that you're looking at. Therefore they cancel out and you don't have to worry about it. If you do want to include it, the challenge is to find good data. A few studies I've seen where they've tried to include that have taken very coarse data and essentially double counted things and just haven't done a good job of it. I'm pretty sure that it turns out to be a relatively insignificant part of the overall equation."

Sometimes, the diverse results are deliberate. "The issues are complex, but there are people out there who are deliberately trying to muddy the water," O'Connor says. "When somebody keeps quoting studies that have the basis of much of their data in the 1970s, it's not relevant to what's happening today. We have two authors out there who have a tendency to use bad data to try to make their point. It's just not right. They take the energy efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer plants that are processing coal in China and apply that to the North American context. Or they take an energy balance from an ethanol plant that was built in the 1980s, and went bankrupt in the 1980s, as the model of what energy requirements are for an ethanol plant. Guess what: there was a reason that plant went bankrupt. As long as there are people out there who continue to do that sort of thing, it's going to be very difficult to get consensus."

The press can also encumber consensus because it is more interested in a sound bite or a headline than in understanding the complex issues that go into the studies, O'Connor says. Additionally, he says the press has a tendency to give more weight than is deserved to the alternate views.
O'Connor says credible studies will have clearly stated their assumptions in terms of inputs, the region and the time period the analysis applies to. His work to facilitate thorough and credible studies is just one of his many contributions. Providing information that allows industry leaders and policy makers to make confident, informed decisions is worthy of a lifetime achievement award.

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at (701) 738-4962 or amcelroy@bbibiofuels.com.