Canadian Ethanol, 30 Years Green

The Canadian ethanol industry has grown tremendously in the last 30 years, writes W. Scott Thurlow. Still it is nowhere close to reaching the full potential of Canada’s renewable fuels technology, innovation or products.
By W. Scott Thurlow | October 16, 2014

About 30 years ago, a group of determined—and let’s be frank—visionary corn farmers joined together to find a way to create new revenue and mitigate risk for their crops. The Ontario Corn Producers Association established what is today’s Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, spurring a viable, domestic industry that has created more than $5 billion in economic activity and more than 14,000 jobs since 2007 while reducing greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions by over 4.2 million metric tons (equivalent to  removing 1 million cars from the road) every year. Canada’s ethanol companies produce over 1.8 billion liters (475 million gallons) of fuel every year.

As much as our domestic ethanol industry has grown and changed, we are nowhere close to reaching the full potential of Canada’s renewable fuels technology, innovation or products.

For this reason, CRFA recently released a new vision and action plan, aptly titled “Evolution and Growth.” Our plan is designed to create a virtual cycle of investment for Canadian innovation in biofuels and the bioeconomy, and presents policy recommendations focused on three key priorities.

1. Becoming a clean energy superpower by investing in Canadian innovation and the bioeconomy.
Today’s ethanol plants are poised to become true biorefineries capable of using a wide range of feedstocks to create renewable fuels and sustainable products. Advanced biofuel technologies can convert agricultural waste, forestry residue and even municipal solid waste into cellulosic biofuels. This is already happening in Alberta, with the opening of the world’s first industrial scale waste-to-biofuels facility operated by Enerkem and the city of Edmonton. Around the world, strategic policy mechanisms and investment programs are already in place and Canadian policies must keep pace.

2. Growing market access and expanding the use of biofuels.
Canada’s renewable fuel standard requires a blend of 5 percent renewable content into the gasoline pool, but the reality is that we blend at a much higher level due to the octane value and lower price of ethanol. This overcompliance, representing more than 1 billion liters a year, is being driven by imports from the United States. Many of you already know that Canada is introducing new regulatory requirements for transporting ethanol by rail. What many don’t realize is that these regulations stand to have a greater direct impact on American ethanol imports, making our work in negotiating fair requirements critical for ethanol producers and suppliers on both sides of the border. 

There are also market access issues for consumers. Ethanol creates more choices and lower prices directly at the fuel pump, diversifying our fuel mix while delivering the environmental benefits many customers—and governments—are looking for. There are over 3.5 million vehicles on Canada’s roads that can take up to E85 but only five pumps that actually offer E85 to consumers. The unfortunate result is that Canadian consumers simply do not have access to any alternatives to petroleum products. New fuel infrastructure is needed, and in short order, if Canadian consumers are to have access to the lower-cost, cleaner ethanol fuel blends already available in the United States.

3. Incenting real environmental benefits with a fair market value for GHG emissions.
It’s no secret that renewable fuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels. The Canadian government has committed to reducing our nation’s GHG emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2020. While biofuels are a keystone to reaching this commitment, governments should be looking beyond meeting obligations and focus on solving environmental problems. Putting a price on carbon, and then ensuring that companies have an obligation to reduce their carbon impact has been proven to work in many jurisdictions around the world. Be it a direct tax, a trading system or low-carbon fuel standard, putting a price on carbon and rewarding those who reduce the total amount of carbon emitted is the solution.

Next month, we will be gathering in Toronto, Ontario, for our Annual Canadian Bioeconomy Conference (formerly the Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit). We will be carrying forward our plan and, for the first time, expanding our program to include topics, speakers and information on the emerging bioeconomy. 

I hope you can join us as we move from biofuels to bioeconomy. After all, as those corn farmers proved in 1984, innovation may sometimes seem at the edge of possibility, but it is always at the heart of success.

Author: W. Scott Thurlow
Canadian Renewable Fuels Association
[email protected]