If you could bank potential, the forest biomass sector would already be rich off of the biofuel sector. After all, there is no shortage of promising technology that will use mountains of biomass as raw material to create renewable fuels and other bioproducts. For those of us in the biomass industry, it is tempting to see these emerging products as opportunities to expand. Time and again, we’ve heard that success in the biomass business depends not only on good business sense, but on good timing—getting into supplying a market not too early, not too late, but just as it takes off. So biomass producers (and would-be producers) are wondering when they will be able to supply this seeming abundance of new biomass consumers on a sizeable scale.
To get an idea of the status of one of these potential new large-scale biomass consumers in Canada, we’ve taken a look at the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry, starting on page 10. We talked with four major players in the Canadian industry about their projects and the biggest hurdles they’re facing to get an idea of when we should expect commercial-scale production to come online. Each of the four companies is currently focused on a different feedstock—municipal solid waste and old utility poles, corncobs, straw, and forestry wood waste—and several newer companies also plan to use forestry-based waste. Interestingly, access to feedstocks was not mentioned as a significant challenge.
So what are some considerations for feedstock suppliers and potential entrepreneurs in preparing for these industries?
For cellulosic ethanol, companies that are focusing on forestry-based wood waste have thus far mostly gravitated to one specific area of Canada—British Columbia—citing it as a region with abundant available feedstock. That province also recently offered government funding specifically for liquid fuels from biomass. So the first opportunities to supply biomass for this market are likely to be in B.C., leaving other areas of Canada to await future expansion. The Maritimes, in particular, have been slow to offer specific incentives for any type of biofuel development.
Another consideration is that none of the contenders have yet produced cellulosic ethanol in consistent, continuous, large volumes that could be described as ‘commercial production’, although it seems that could happen any day now. On the plus side, forestry waste has been made into cellulosic ethanol at the pilot plant scale. However, when the first commercial-scale production from forestry-supplied waste will occur is anyone’s guess.
With the variety of projects that are making headway, as well as increasing support from some governments and private industry, the predictions are that large-scale commercial production of cellulosic ethanol is only a couple of years away—perhaps as soon as 2010 or 2011. Yet however promising the future may be, it’s still just that—the future. These positive signs of development of the biomass industry beyond our mainstays of heat, power, and cogeneration are encouraging, exciting, and definitely something to watch. But in the meantime, you may want to focus on keeping those heat, power, mulch, and pellet mill clients happy. They’ll be paying the bills for some time to come. •
Heather Hager, Associate Editor