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Canbio Update: What Bioeconomy?


August 7, 2009
By Jamie Bakos

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The theme song of a popular prairie-based sitcom, called Corner Gas, is Not a Lot Goin’ On. It naturally included a line about the opportunity to watch your dog run away for three days.

The theme song of a popular prairie-based sitcom, called Corner Gas, is Not a Lot Goin’ On. It naturally included a line about the opportunity to watch your dog run away for three days.  The tongue-in-cheek theme song set the stage for each episode that set out to dispel this “nothing going on” myth by humorously demonstrating a lot of prairie talent and sophistication that would rival any place in the world. 

So why is there “not a lot goin’ on” with bioenergy and bioproducts in the prairies, a region that is saturated with both forestry and agricultural biomass? Indeed, the bioeconomy is so far off the radar of government and industry that the two hottest topics in the prairie province of Saskatchewan are clean coal technology and nuclear power. There is only fleeting mention of biomass in its energy plans.

The answer is scale.  The biomass industry needs to demonstrate the scale of the biomass business opportunity. 

Clean coal and nuclear
Two respective envisioned clean coal and nuclear projects are currently in the prairie spotlight:

  1. Up to two 1000 MW nuclear reactors at a cost of $8–10 billion each.  The plant would offset on the order of six million tons of CO2 per reactor compared to the status quo of coal-fired generation. 
  2. One $1.5 billion clean coal project producing 100 MW of electricity and storing around 1 million tons of CO2 by ground injection to enhance oil recovery.

These are two big-ticket items, both in their capacity to deliver power and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are projects that could shake up a province of just one million people. 

So what could you do with the money from one nuclear reactor and one clean coal project and access to Saskatchewan’s biomass?  Could biomass deliver scale? 

The potential alternatives:

  1. A combined heat and power (CHP) plant: one plant could produce 2000 MW of power, or a number of smaller distributed facilities could produce power and heat for industry. These would offset a similar amount of CO2 as a nuclear power plant.
  2. Slow pyrolysis: a recent 10 ton/day demo in Saskatchewan showed that 1000 MW of power could be generated by smaller 2 MW distributed biorefinery facilities.  These projects would have the added benefit of producing 15,000 tons/day of biochar, potentially worth more than $2 billion per year, approaching the value of all unprocessed crops.

How much biomass? 
The biomass projects would require between 16 and 20 million bone-dry tons/year for either project. Approximately six million acres of land would be needed to grow this biomass at an estimated three bone-dry tons of biomass per acre.  Since Saskatchewan has 64 million acres of cropland, entrepreneurs (i.e., farmers) would need to convert 10% of Saskatchewan’s land into energy crops. That should do the trick, but they might as well use some of the wheat and barley straw, totaling around 20 million tons/year, and seed some of the 37 million acres of cropland and commercial forests that are not currently in production. 

The Canadian prairies have been particularly slow on the uptake of bioenergy and bioproducts for a reason.  Biomass faces its share of issues ranging from access to financing, long transportation distances, pests, and water availability. 

Coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, gold, and potash are shining, and rightfully so, as there is much money being made. For many in government and the public, forestry and agriculture equals subsidies and trade issues, or more simply put, significant complications.  

But look at the opportunities. The biomass alternatives yield these possibilities:

  • For the CHP option, Saskatchewan could get almost twice as much power from biomass, and similar or better environmental benefits, for the same price as clean coal and nuclear.  More jobs would be created by the CHP option, resulting in higher operating costs, but this is a reasonable price to pay for sustainability.  With the per-capita usage of electricity at approximately 48 kWh/day, 2000 MW will provide electricity for everyone.  
  • For the slow pyrolysis option, the province would get about the same amount of power, but also 19 million more tons/year of CO2 sequestration and the same CO2 offsets by not burning coal.  Another added benefit is that biochar from slow pyrolysis can improve biomass yields and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.  Moreover, Canada might even become a player in the emerging U.S. carbon trading market.  

There are advantages and disadvantages with any alternatives, and the debate will continue.  The discussion will require much more discussion and scientific, third-party comparisons.•

Jamie Bakos is a professional environmental engineer, a member of the board of CANBIO, and chair of the Prairie Committee of CANBIO, Canada’s national bioenergy organization.


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