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It Ain't Easy Being Green

Ashraf Amlani - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Maybe it was the 4,900,000 barrels of crude oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico due to the recklessness of British Petroleum. Maybe it was the recent Green peace activists that recently rappelled down Calgary Towers protesting the cozy relation ship between the government and the tar sands oil industry. Or maybe it is simply the extra carbon tax you pay every time you fuel up at the pump. Whatever the trigger, most of us at some point have given some thought to the rising costs and hazards of fossil fuels. So how does Canada fare in the development of biofuels as an alternative source of energy?

Ethanol might have been the answer, but an increasing mound of research provides evidence that it is not as eco-friendly as it was once perceived to be, and the ethanol industry has been accused of inflating food and oil prices. However, this has brought cellulosic biofuels into the limelight. Made from agricultural wastes, such as the leaves and stalks of corn, or non-food crops, such as switchgrass, cellulosic ethanol is a full renewable, advanced biofuel that can be used in today’s cars. Established in the early 1970’s, Ottawa based Iogen Corporation has become a world leader in the technology which uses agricultural wastes to make cellulosic ethanol. Iogen also manufactures and markets enzyme products for application in processes that modify or hydrolyze natural fiber, which are used by the pulp and paper, grain processing, brewing, textile and animal feed industries.

Closer to home, BC-based Lignol Energy Corp continues to grow as its pilot scale refinery tests new softwood and hardwood variety as ethanol sources. In June of this year, Lignol entered into an R&D partnership with Novozymes, the world’s leading producer of industrial enzymes, to develop a process for making biofuel from forestry waste at a production cost down to $2 per gallon, a price competitive with gasoline and corn ethanol at the current US market prices. Given that the average North American throws away 2kg of trash everyday, of which 37% is waste paper (largely cellulose), the disposal of solid waste through cellulosic ethanol conversion could actually reduce solid waste disposal costs incurred by local and federal governments!

While low-cost fuels for household energy production is yet to reach optimal efficiency, many industrial plants have realized the cost-effectiveness of using waste products to meet their power needs. In sectors such as pulp & paper manufacturing and forest products, there has been a slow shift from natural gas or grid-purchased power to onsite fuel production using low cost fuels, such as wood residuals produced on site or available nearby. This has created a niche market for companies like Nexterra Systems Corp, which provides gasification systems directly to industrial customers. Nexterra’s unique gasification systems allow low cost-fuels to burn cleanly, allowing companies to meet their energy needs while reducing carbon emission into the atmosphere. Since agriculture, energy, forestry and mining account for over 50% of Canada’s exports (in 2009), there are abundant opportunities for companies like Nexterra.

However, Canada’s plentiful natural resources have often been cited as one of the reasons behind the slow progress in the alternative energy sector. While the environment is an increasing concern in Canada, there is little urgency to provide tax incentives for the development of alternative energy technology. In contrast, German government policies have attracted international investments and increased employment while ensuring long-term security by aggressively pushing for domestically produced alternative energy since the country is almost devoid of natural resources. It is no surprise then that several Canadian companies developing solar energy, including Waterloo-based ARISE Technologies, have opted to set up pilot plants in Europe. However, John MacDonald, co-founder of Burnaby-based solar module manufacturer Day 4 Energy, strongly believes that renewable energy will be the future of energy in Canada

The clean energy sector in BC is already started to grow and a number of opportunities exist for those who wish to test the waters. Earlier this summer, LifeSciences BC, in partnership with BCIT and UBC, launched the Cleantech Student Intern Program (iClip) which aims to provide students with job-ready skills and the practical industry experience needed by the cleantech sector. SFU based Vancouver Greentech Exchange is a great forum to share your green ideas and network with other industry professionals. In September, at a session hosted by BioTalent Canada, Mayor Gregor Robertson will present the City of Vancouver’s long term plan to be the greenest city in the world. And as part of National Biotechnology Week, SBN will host Building Biotech: Powering the BioEconomy on September 20, with a presentation from Dr. John Macdonald (Day 4 Energy) and an exciting panel discussion including Darcy Quinn (Nexterra) and Jack Grushcow (Linnaeus Plant Sciences).

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