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Inaugural AgBiomass conference 2013

Members of Canada’s agricultural biomass industry gathered in Ottawa for two days at the end of August to discuss the state of the industry.


October 24, 2013
By Amie Silverwood

Members of Canada’s agricultural biomass industry gathered in Ottawa for two days at the end of August to discuss the state of the industry.

Agricultural biomass from crop residues and purpose-grown crops is a renewable source of material that can be transformed into energy, biogas, biochemicals and bioproducts.

The purpose of the AgBiomass Canada Conference was to unite industry experts in an effort to move forward.

Speakers looked at some of the challenges and opportunities within the industry. Biomass has the potential to reduce the carbon intensity of our energy, chemicals and consumer products but an effort must be made to reduce the energy used in the production of biomass, given that more than 80 per cent of emissions occur in the final stages of production, according to Dr. Susan Wood-Bohm, executive director of the Biological GHG Management Program at Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. Shipping the materials necessary from farm to factory for processing can require a lot of fuel use.

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The carbon that comes from fossil fuels is millennia old, whereas the carbon that comes from biomass fuel has been recently sequestered and will be resequestered relatively quickly, argued Wood-Bohm. She recommended locating biomass facilities close to material sources in order to reduce the use of fossil fuels in the transportation of agricultural materials to the boiler, thus reducing the wasted fuel in the production of biomass.

Another challenge agricultural biomass faces is that the equipment required to process the material is expensive and varied – adding to the challenge of making a business case. Other complexities include timing issues, weather, transportation and storage issues. Residue management is a term that will keep cropping up as the industry struggles to get off the ground.

Simplifying the message
Over the two-day conference, we listened to case studies about companies that have made successful business ventures around biomass. We heard from farms that sell their residuals and producers who buy them. We heard from companies that make biochemicals that are comparable to petrochemicals and can be used to manufacture plastics, personal care products and a full range of products. We heard from petrochemical representatives who are very interested in biochemicals and moving closer to the farm as oil gets more and more expensive.

Attendees were interested in creating a viable business case for bioprocessors and a value-chain consortium discussed the findings of its recent study at the conference. The study looked specifically at developing a commercially viable cellulosic sugar plant in Southwestern Ontario to support the future production of green chemicals.

The consortium studied the costs associated with the harvest, aggregation and delivery of corn stalks to a commercial plant and sought to determine the most viable business model to enable producers to gain a fair profit while providing facilities with the feedstock they require to make a biochemical.

The researchers found they needed an option for farmers to retain more of the value chain. This was achieved through a co-operative business model with partners sharing the risks and the rewards.

There was a range of voices and a wide variety of backgrounds at the conference but everyone had high hopes for the future of biomass in Canada. Attendees agreed that their voices needed to find a rallying cry with which to clarify their potential and their needs when speaking with the public and with politicians.

The conference offered three key take-home messages: First, we need to celebrate our favourable outcomes, given that success breeds success. Second, moving forward, the industry professionals in attendance plan to focus on a single ask that can be accomplished in two or three years. Third, innovators must ensure that the products made have a way to monetize the carbon benefit from farm to fuel pumps.

Conference panellists from across the country agreed that we have the resources in Canada and the world-leading companies necessary to succeed: we just need a bit of co-ordination. The industry needs to create a market in Canada instead of being a biomass exporter only. The niches in Canada are unique so Canadians need to develop the technology necessary to fill the gaps and develop niches locally.

Though there are challenges for the industry to face, conference attendees were optimistic that there is an opportunity for biomass in Canada that needs to be seized.

Despite these concerns, forestry and agricultural residuals are the energy source of the future, insisted conference chair Don McCabe. •


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