Ever since Dr. Brown returned to 1985 from the future in his flying DeLorean in “Back to the Future”, I’ve wondered if we too would eventually be able to use garbage to fuel our vehicles. Although it may not be in the form of a portable cold fusion reactor capable of generating 1.21 gigawatts, we have found ways to generate fuel from waste nonetheless.
The biomass industry converts waste from a variety of sources to electrical power, heat, and transportable fuels. Biomass plant feedstocks for power generation include forestry, agricultural, municipal, and manufacturing waste, with wood waste being the most significant feedstock for Canadian biomass power generation.
With only around 45% of the wood sent to sawmills being useable as lumber, a large amount of wood waste is created. This waste can be used as fuel in biomass power plants. The most recent biomass plant data published by Canada’s Energy Regulator states that in 2014 Canada had roughly 70 biomass power plants with a capacity of 2408 MW, generating 12,161 GWh1. This number grew to 2702 MW of biomass power plant capacity by 2016, but it represents less than 2% of the country’s electricity generation2.
With two thirds of Canada’s electricity generation coming from renewable sources in 20162, mostly from hydroelectric plants, there is still a lot of opportunity for further development of renewable energy sources as we transition away from non-renewables.
In 2016, Canada exported nearly 80% of the wood pellets it produced as solid biomass fuel3, showing that there is no shortage of feedstock to support future domestic biomass power plant development.
With the rise of electrical vehicle availability and sales in Canada, as well as the development of charging station infrastructure, we start to see how, indirectly, using waste to fuel your car has become a reality.
This is only half of the story though, as transportable fuels will likely still be needed in long distance transportation and in remote communities. This is where biofuels come in.
Biofuels are generated from biomass. There are several different forms of biofuels from biogas, which is methane generated from the digestion of agricultural and organic consumer waste, to biodiesel, which is a chemical conversion of natural fats and oils into a liquid fuel.
Some of these biofuels can be used directly in engines designed to run on fossil fuels. Others require further refining or blending to be used as a substitute for fossil fuels.
In 2019, Canada had 23 renewable fuel plants with a capacity to produce nearly 3 billion litres of fuel per year4. The Canadian government’s Renewable Fuels Regulations currently require 5% renewable fuel by volume in gasoline pools and 2% renewable fuel by volume in diesel pools. The production from Canadian renewable fuel plants is insufficient to fulfill this requirement, and consequently, imports of renewable fuels from the U.S. must make up the balance.
The lack of Canadian infrastructure to produce sufficient volumes of biofuel to meet regulations, despite an abundance of available feedstock, presents an opportunity.
Opportunities in biomass and biofuels are being seized by innovative Canadian companies like Cielo Waste Management and Enerkem Alberta Biofuels. Both have built facilities to produce renewable fuels from organic and inorganic waste right here in Alberta.
I first heard about Cielo earlier this year when their President & CEO, Don Allan, presented their technology at an APEGA luncheon. His presentation inspired me to learn more about biofuels.
Arguably, biomass and biofuel plants may not be as slick as the Mr. Fusion unit on Doc Brown’s DeLorean, but they still manage to turn waste into energy.
List of Sources
- Voegele, Erin, “NEB report addresses biomass power generation in Canada.” Biomass Magazine, May 8, 2017.
- National Energy Board of Canada, “Canada’s Renewable Power Landscape: Energy Market Analysis 2017.”
- IEA Bioenergy, “Canada – 2018 Update Bioenergy policies and status of implementation.” September 2018.
- Bradford, Harvey – USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, “Canada – Biofuels Annual 2019.” Global Agricultural Information Network, July 7, 2019.
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