Category Archives: biofuels

Air Canada backs project to build biofuels supply chain for airports

An earlier version was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Canada’s aviation sector made history in 2012 after a number of test flights showed that renewable jet fuel could be blended with regular fuel without affecting airplane performance.

It started in April, when Porter Airlines used a blend of 50 per cent “biojet” fuel on a Bombardier turboprop, which successfully flew from the Toronto island airport to Ottawa. Two months later, Air Canada flight AC991 carried passengers from Toronto to Mexico City using a similar 50/50 mix. It was the first of two commercial test flights Air Canada conducted that year.

“We took 43 per cent of the carbon out of that flight,” said Teresa Ehman, the airline’s director of environmental affairs. “It was phenomenal. But it raised the next question: Why does this not happen every day?”

Environmental groups want an answer. Airline flight and passenger volumes are expected to double over the next 15 years, and if the aviation sector doesn’t change its behaviour, that also means a doubling of greenhouse-gas emissions — from slightly less than 2 per cent today to a projected 4 or 5 per cent by 2050.

At the Paris climate conference in December, there was pressure from a variety of parties to have the aviation sector included in the final text of the resulting international agreement. It didn’t work. Airlines were once again left to their own devices. Initially included as part of the Kyoto Protocol, oversight of international aviation emissions got punted in the 1990s to the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has sat on the issue for two decades and continues to be the chosen overseer. A plan of action is expected to be hammered out this year, but critics warn not to expect anything mandatory or ambitious.

The entire situation frustrates the European Union, which has tried twice to impose a carbon fee on international flights into and out of Europe. It backed down from its most recent attempt in 2014 after U.S. and Chinese airlines threatened to ignore it, but the EU signalled it would revive the effort if ICAO didn’t have its own plan in place by 2017.

The bottom line: airlines need to step up their emissions-reduction game,  and biofuels are expected to play a major role.

Will biojet fuel take off?

In many ways, making biojet fuel is the easiest part of the mission to decarbonize aviation. Many companies are already producing it in limited quantities, using ingredients that range from canola and camelina to animal fats and algae.

The bigger challenge, said Ehman, is coming up with an efficient and economical way of safely getting fuel from a production facility all the way to an airplane’s wing. Biofuels are an important component, but without a supporting infrastructure and supply chain that allows it to be consumed on a large scale across all Canadian airports, the market for this fuel will never grow large enough to matter.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 5.03.32 PMTo tackle this barrier, Air Canada has teamed with experts from industry and academia on a project that will blend 400,000 litres of biojet fuel with an existing fuel-delivery system at a soon-to-be-chosen airport. The current approach — driving a truck directly to the airplane — creates a parallel system that is too expensive and impractical in commercial volumes.

“It’s not just knowing if these fuels can work in the planes, because that is known already,” said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, which is part of the initiative. “What we are trying to do is be among the first to put together a supply chain so we can see what it takes to start delivering these fuels into a hub in a way that allows them to be more widely used.”

Fred Ghatala, who as partner with Vancouver-based consultancy Waterfall Group is leading the research effort, said it comes down to lower costs in an industry where fuel purchasing and delivery represents a substantial part of an airline’s operational budget. “Reducing costs where possible when using low-carbon fuels is fundamental to the future of those fuels.”

The University of Toronto, McGill University and the International Air Transport Association are also part of the project as members of the BioFuelNet Aviation Task Force. Funding is coming from the Green Aviation Research and Development Network, which gets its support from the federal government and Canada’s aerospace sector.

Crucial to get it right

Ehman said Air Canada has been working to solve this carbon dilemma for nearly five years. After its biofuel test flights, the airline worked with Airbus and the BioFuelNet team to study Canada’s ability to supply biojet fuel, asking how much the country could produce and how much the fuel would cost. It then passed that research along to Transport Canada, which did its own Canadian feasibility study.

The industry has to get it right. For its part, Air Canada has done a good job of finding efficiencies in its operations, with measures to reduce aircraft weight, improve fleet maintenance and streamline routes. Out of 20 transatlantic airlines measured for operational efficiency, Canada’s biggest airline tied for fourth place behind only KLM, Aer Lingus, Airberlin and Norwegian Air, according to a November report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

In Europe, airports themselves are committing to be carbon-neutral by 2030 through an increase in efficiency and use of solar power. But on-the-ground or in-the-air efficiency can only go so far, said Ehman, pointing out that fuel consumption represents more than 95 per cent of any airline’s emissions.

As a global industry, airlines have made a voluntary commitment to increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets by 1.5 per cent annually and achieve carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020. By 2050, the industry says it will cut its absolute GHG emissions in half compared to 2005 levels.

The only way to get there is with biofuels, and if that’s going to happen, Air Canada wants to make sure a vibrant market is developed domestically to keep jobs and money in the country. “There’s a paradigm shift happening,” said Ehman. “It’s important for Canada to take a lead in this.”

Mabee echoed that view. “This is the way the world is moving. We have to deal with emissions in every sector, somehow. So let’s figure this out.”

Canada’s advantage

Canada is in an ideal position to lead development of aviation biofuels.

For one, it has all the resources it needs to sustainably produce vast quantities of biofuel, whether from agricultural and forest residues or specially grown oilseed crops such as canola or camelina. Second, the country has the domestic expertise to refine those materials into a certifiable product that the industry can trust.

Homegrown companies such as Hamilton-based Biox and Enerkem of Montreal could be ideal producers of the fuel down the road. “They have the building blocks to start assembling those types of molecules,” said Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University. “But the key part of this, what is missing, is a policy driver for it. We don’t have a government mandate to make these fuels.”

A renewable fuel standard, like the federal requirement that gasoline contain at least 5 per cent ethanol, is one policy option. Another is a B.C.-style low-carbon fuel standard, which requires a 10 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of gasoline by 2020. Putting the aviation sector under the umbrella of a carbon tax might also be considered.

But it makes no sense to knock on the government’s door if a barrier such as fuel distribution makes it overly difficult for the industry to comply. And while some might ask why batteries or hydrogen or solar technology isn’t being considered as an alternative, Mabee offers a reality check. “Solar planes and battery-powered planes are nice research efforts, but practically biofuels are the only way to go.”

This article was part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Tides Canada supported the partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star had full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

After Paris, it’s time for Canada to finally join IRENA

IRENA is the International Renewable Energy Agency, a UN-affiliated organization established in 2009 to promote awareness and growth of renewable energy technologies on the global stage. It’s a kind of counter-balance to existing agencies that have long represented the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The idea for IRENA goes as far back as 1981, but it took a quarter century to get the political traction it needed.

Today, 145 countries have officially joined IRENA and another 30 are in the process of becoming members. That would bring the total to 175. By comparison, the 42-year-old International Energy Agency has only 29 members, while the 59-year-old International Atomic Energy Agency has 167 members.

Canada is a founding member of the IEA and IAEA, yet Canada is the only G8 countries not part of IRENA. In fact, all other G8 countries were founding members of IRENA. Canada isn’t even in the process of joining, yet China, India, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already members. Even Syria is signing up. The only other large country that sits with Canada outside of this massive international group is Brazil.

The Harper government avoided it like the plague. Not joining made a statement that even like-minded governments in Australia refused to make. But times have changed. Canada has a new government that says it’s serious about taking climate action. Canada played an important role in reaching a binding international climate agreement in Paris last month. Canada’s provinces have set ambitious emission-reduction targets that will require accelerated deployment of renewable energy. The country simply can’t afford to remain on the outside of IRENA.

So what’s the government’s position? Here’s the answer I got back after posing the question:

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.52.53 AM“‎The Government of Canada was recently asked to join the International Renewable Energy Agency. This request is still under review,” said Caitlin Workman, press secretary for Catherine McKenna, Canada’s federal minister of environment and climate change.

It’s safe to say that since IRENA was founded the invitation for Canada to join has been a standing one.

Some might say: Who cares? It’s just another international agency that costs money to join and doesn’t offer much in return. I’d argue it does offer value. It will keep Canadian officials more abreast of global trends in renewable energy, but more important, it will give Canada a seat at a table filled with dozens of countries looking for the skills, knowledge and technology required to transition their economies away from fossil fuels.

The export opportunities for Canada are immense. The World Bank, in a report released in September 2014, estimated that investment in clean technologies in developing countries over the next decade will exceeded $6.4 trillion (U.S.). Of that, $1.9 trillion will be focused on renewable energy technologies, with a significant chunk of that creating an opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses. In my opinion, that number is likely low-balling the opportunity, especially in the wake of the Paris climate summit.

IRENA is an opportunity for Canada to identify the needs of others, and the role it can play in meeting those needs.

Already, representatives from its 145 members are gathering in Abu Dhabi for IRENA’s sixth-annual assembly to discuss the role of renewables just one month after the Paris summit. There will be much to discuss as they tease out the details of the Paris agreement, and much back room dealmaking that Canada will not be a part of.

Canada should be there showing leadership.



Another major milestone for ZooShare Co-op: financial regulator has approved sale of community bond issue

ZooI’ve written about ZooShare before, so I won’t get into too much background, except to say that it’s a local co-operative in Toronto that wants to turn poop from animals at the Toronto Zoo into biogas that will in turn be used to generate electricity. A very cool project. I am a volunteer director on the ZooShare board, and it has been a great learning experience. In July we hit one major milestone when the co-operative was awarded a 20-year contract to sell its electricity to the province as part of the feed-in-tariff program. This week, we hit another milestone: the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, one of the province’s main financial regulators, approved ZooShare’s request to sell its community bonds. As a result, this fall we’ll be having an active campaign to sell the bonds, which will have a five to seven year term and will offer an annual return of up to 7 per cent. To learn more, visit ZooShare’s website. This is all great news, because now we can raise the necessary funds to begin the process of building our anaerobic digestion and power generation facility at the Toronto Zoo. We are tentatively expecting to launch the bond-selling campaign at the zoo on Oct. 10, so these are exciting times for a tiny co-op that’s thinking big.

On another positive note, ZooShare is also one of 10 social ventures that have been selected to be part of the new Social Venture Exchange (SVX), which is a joint venture of the Toronto Stock Exchange and MaRS that will launch on Sept. 19. Our bonds will be listed on this exchange, which is great exposure for us. As ZooShare executive director Daniel Bida says, “The SVX is the first of its kind in North America and it is surely to attract large interest once it is launched.”

Please consider becoming a member of ZooShare. We’re serious when we say we’ve got lots of pootentional. (Cheesy, I know, but had to say it).

Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report

gts_1.13_web_mediumEthical Media Markets calls itself an independent publisher of research reports and other information related to the emerging green economy, and every six months it comes out with an annual and mid-year update to its Green Transition Scoreboard. The scoreboard has been tracking private investments in the green economy globally since 2007. In its August 2013 report, it highlighted what it is calling a “dramatic mid-year surge” in cumulative global investment since 2007, rising to $5.2 trillion by August from $4.1 trillion in February. And remember, this is private investment — i.e. it excludes investment in government projects.

The jump, according to the report, is partially driven by the following trends: “…the write-down of fossil fuel assets; the inevitable wave of nuclear plants due to be retired; the exposing of hypothetical forecasts of 100 years of shale gas; and the decline of large, centralized electricity generation.”

Nearly $2.4 trillion has gone into renewable energy investments, making it the largest investment theme out of the $5.2 trillion total. Energy efficiency investments represent $1.33 trillion, followed by green construction at $880 billion, corporate R&D at $378 billion and remaining “cleantech” at $235 billion. Ethical Markets Media says it comes up with these numbers by scanning reports from Cleantech Group, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Reuters and many UN and other international studies and individual company reports.

The report has a narrow definition of “green” investment. It excludes funds invested in nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels, with some limited exceptions. Even so, it projects the $10 trillion investment mark will easily be reached by 2020 and, alongside this increase, we will see a transition away from fossil fuels.

Says the report: “Increasingly, worldwide regulations are leaving fossil fuel investments as stranded assets with pension funds heeding the call to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green technologies. Dutch Rabobank will now refuse loans to companies involved in tar sands and shale gas, citing the long-term financial and environmental risks are too large. In July 2013, Storebrand, a major Norwegian pension fund advisor, excluded from its Energy Sector all 13 coal producers and the 6 oil companies with the highest exposure to tar sands ‘to reduce Storebrand’s exposure to fossil fuels and to secure long term, stable returns for our clients…'”

I don’t entirely agree with some of the conclusions this report reaches, but it adds another interesting perspective to the energy transition that is clearly taking place globally. Big dollars are being spent on cleaner forms of energy. That a transition is happening there is little doubt. The question now is: how fast, and can we accelerate it?

55 “clean energy” projects get $82 million in federal funding… Great news, despite the calculated timing

xpkkqThe money that was set aside for clean energy initiatives in the federal Conservative government’s 2011 budget is finally beginning to trickle out, and while it’s a welcome boost for 55 project proponents — including 15 pre-commercial demonstration projects — the timing of this $82-million announcement is suspect. After all, Canada has been criticized for its weak environmental performance as it awaits approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. “There needs to be more progress,” said David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. Basically, the U.S. position is that if Canada (and Alberta) doesn’t start pulling its weigh on environmental efforts it will make the decision to approve a pipeline project that much more difficult for the Obama administration. Since then, the Harper Conservatives — and oil sands proponents, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have been on the defensive, making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to “educate” the Americans about how much Canada is doing on the environmental file. This would include weaning ourselves off coal, which of course is not what’s happening in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada except Ontario. But whatever, that has never stopped this federal government from repackaging the efforts of others to look like their own, or throwing money at something in the 11th hour to rework perceptions and ultimately get their way, despite the reality. Rather than confront the problem of climate change head on, my federal government shamefully responds to criticism by bad-mouthing the likes of NASA scientist James Hansen and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, dismissing both as misinformed on the matter. Uh, yeah… right.

All that said, I’m impressed with the diversity of projects being funded with this $82 million. They include:

  • A commercial demonstration of a system that manages electric-vehicle charging stations in Quebec;
  • Demonstration of a wind-biomass-battery system in the north of Quebec where there’s heavy reliance on diesel;
  • Integration of wind energy in diesel-based generation systems to power remote mining operations;
  • The study of Very Low Head hydro turbines, a promising technology that opens up hydroelectric generation opportunities across Canada;
  • A project to tap low-temperature geothermal energy for power production;
  • Advancing efficiency and reducing the cost of in-stream tidal energy;
  • Development and testing of prototypes of “plug and play” building-integrated solar PV and thermal systems;
  • A project to recover energy from refrigeration waste heat;
  • Advancing a process that takes syngas made from the gasification of municipal solid waste and turns it into drop-in jet and diesel fuel;
  • Researching and developing a super-efficient air-source heat pump that can provide heating in very cold climates and cooling during summers at low cost;
  • An inventory and analysis of recoverable waste heat sources from industrial processes in Alberta;
  • Development of a pre-commercial thermoacoustic engine that is super efficient and can be used for co-generation applications.

In addition to the above-mentioned projects, there is a big emphasis on technologies that help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, as well as coal-fired power production   in provinces that are heavy coal users, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia. Indeed, roughly a quarter of the funds has been earmarked for projects aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel production and use (or perpetuating the production and use of fossil fuels, depending on how you view it). I have mixed feelings about this. One part of me says, “Great, we really need to reduce emissions and water contamination/consumption related to the oil sands and burning coal.” The other part of me says, “Oh great, more window dressing. This will make it look like the federal government is doing something without actually doing something, as these technologies are unlikely to have an impact anytime soon. We’re screwed.”

Two projects in Nova Scotia that are being funded will focus on scoping out ideal sites for geological sequestration of CO2 and coming up with a monitoring and verification standard to make sure CO2 injected underground isn’t leaking out — i.e. will stay underground. Money is also being given to a Quebec company called CO2 Solutions, which I’ve written about many times over the years. This company, demonstrating biomimicry in action, has developed an enzyme that can extract CO2 from industrial effluent emissions. It will use the new funding to support a pilot-scale facility that can capture 90 per cent of C02 from an oil sands in situ production and upgrading operation. “This is expected to result in cost savings of at least 25 per cent compared to conventional carbon capture technology,” according to the government funding announcement.

One project will look at whether impurities in CO2 have an impact on the capture, transport and underground storage of CO2, while another will study geological sites in the Athabasca area (i.e. where the oil sands are located) that are ideal for underground storage of CO2. Funding will also be used to investigate the use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen, thereby reducing the energy needed to create steam (i.e. reducing water needs and the proliferation of toxic tailing ponds). Efforts to improve the efficiency of steam-assisted gravity drainage processes and reduce the environmental impacts of tailing ponds are also being funded. On the water front, one project will explore the ability to use non-potable, briny water to create steam for oil sands production, while another will demonstrate a technology that can clean up and recycle the waste water used during oil sands production. In total, about $21 million will go toward all of these projects, designed to help “dirty” energy become — or look — much cleaner.

In a separate announcement, the federal government also disclosed plans to support construction of a $19-million facility in Alberta that will use algae to recycle industrial CO2 emissions, in this case emissions from an oil sands facility operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. This is great news for Toronto-based Pond Biofuels, a company I have written about extensively and which currently operates a pilot facility at St. Mary’s Cement, where it grows algae from kiln emissions. The end goal of this three-year oil sands project is to use the algae to create commercial biofuels and other bioproducts. All of this innovation is important, and funding of these projects — as well as the recent re-funding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an important supporter of cleantech innovation in my country — is encouraging. Yet, it’s not getting us to where we need to be. Nowhere close.

We’ve been down this capture-and-hide carbon path before. A handful of high-profile projects announced several years ago have still led nowhere, and two have already been cancelled. Yet the federal government, and Alberta, is still putting most of its eggs in the CCS basket. Indeed, they’re still heavily promoting this idea of a new pipeline network that will carry CO2 from the oil sands and other heavy emitters to sequestration sites. Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes recently touted this proposed pipeline as a “Trans-Canada highway for Carbon.” Here’s a question: If the industry and federal government can support the ambitious idea of building a cross-Canada network of CO2-carrying pipelines, why does it poo-poo the idea of a Trans-Canada power transmission corridor that could carry clean hydroelectric, wind and solar power from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed? The positioning is proof that moving toward a low-carbon world is not about can’t-do, it’s about won’t-do; it’s about protecting established industries and infrastructure and preventing a cleaner, 21st-Century alternative from emerging.

Again, the recent round of innovation funding is good news. But let’s look at the reality: Last week we sadly hit 400 parts per millions (ppm) of CO2 in our fragile atmosphere, a level never before experienced in human history. Many scientists say 350 ppm is where we should be, and certainly we shouldn’t go much past 400 ppm. We’re heading in the wrong direction, and notoriously conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are now even sounding the alarm. If the federal and Alberta governments really want to prove to the Americans — and Canadians — that they’re serious about climate change, they would complement their innovation spending with a recognition that the oil sands extraction machine can’t continue its current fast pace of growth, and that some day — in 10, 20, 30 years — the oil orgy must come to a complete end. This is true of all “carbon bombs” being developed around the world, not just the oil sands. And if we are to adequately prepare for that day, we need to carefully transition to a low-carbon economy. That means taxing carbon, a policy approach now being encouraged by both the IEA and World Bank and accepted by most credible economists. That means creating a realistic vision for the country and working toward it — and by “realistic” I mean recognizing that perpetuating the growth (or current rate) of oil sands production and coal use is not an option.

This isn’t about educating people so they are “made” to know better about the oil sands’ alleged strong environmental record. This isn’t about clever public relations campaigns and slick and deceptive advertising meant to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers and voters. This isn’t about targeted funding announcements to make a government appear that it cares. This is about facing facts, and preparing for eventualities. Canada isn’t doing that, and soon enough, Mother Nature is going to spank our sorry asses.