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Conference Report: Steady Growth

Many of the world’s top bioenergy experts were in Vancouver in late August 2009 for the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Bioenergy conference.


October 20, 2009
By Bill Tice

Many of the world’s top bioenergy experts were in Vancouver in late August 2009 for the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Bioenergy conference.  The four-day event, which attracted approximately 300 attendees from over 20 countries, was held at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Forest Sciences Centre and was hosted by UBC Dean of Forestry and IEA Bioenergy task leader Jack Saddler.

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Several of the IEA Bioenergy Conference sponsors and exhibitors set up displays and booths in the main public area of the University of British Columbia’s Forest
Sciences Centre.


 

The conference was kicked off by B.C. Minister of Forests and Range Pat Bell and UBC President Stephen Toope.  The pair was followed by a handful of speakers in a general overview session, along with several presenters who discussed government strategies for bioenergy.  Attendees then broke up into smaller tracked sessions where they could focus on more specific areas of interest.  On the final day of the conference, attendees returned to the main lecture hall for general sessions covering bioenergy from industry and global perspectives.

With the escalating global interest in bioenergy, the conference was both topical and timely, and according to one expert in attendance, the subject will only continue to generate interest as the industry grows.  “Modern biomass has been growing steadily throughout the world since the 1970s and 1980s at various scales, but during the last decade, the growth has increased significantly,” says Paris, France-based professor Ralph Simms, who was one of the presenters.  Simms is a senior analyst of renewables and climate change with the Renewable Energy Division of the IEA.

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Simms points to a number of reasons for the recent growth in biomass, including: a greater understanding of the supply chain, which helps to reduce the delivered biomass costs; the development of more convenient biomass such as packaging it in bundles or converting it to pellets; the drivers of climate change mitigation, sustainable development, and energy security in various regions of the world, which can all be met by using available biomass resources; and the relatively higher costs of fossil fuels.

Clean boilers
In addition to the presentations, attendees had the opportunity to talk to with a number of sponsors and exhibitors who had booths set up in the main public area of the UBC Forest Sciences Centre.  Burkhard Fink of Fink Machine in Enderby, B.C., was showcasing his company’s bioenergy equipment, including fully automatic wood-fired boilers.  He notes that over the past couple of years, it has become much easier to promote and sell bioenergy.  “For the first few years we were in this business it was very difficult because of the misconception that biomass boilers pollute the environment,” he says.  “The reality is the contrary.  They are actually a very clean burning piece of equipment, which lowers the carbon footprint, and they are basically carbon neutral.”

Fink says in addition to addressing the misconception about environmental concerns, an initiative in B.C. to have the province’s public sector become carbon neutral by 2010 has sparked a considerable amount of new interest in bioenergy.

Big potential

Bob Ingratta, who is a bioenergy and bioproducts sector specialist with Life Sciences British Columbia and was fielding questions at his organization’s booth, was enthusiastic about the potential of the bioenergy and bioproducts sector.  “Biomass is really a primary feedstock to help drive the bioenergy sector,” he explained.  “With the U.S. and global focus on biomass, there are estimates of anywhere from a $175 billion potential for the bioenergy market and another $200 billion in bioproducts, and that is all going to be fed by various different combinations of biomass.”

Ingratta says with that vision and understanding and government commitment to drive this sector forward, there is a significant interest in biomass or feedstock availability.  “In B.C., the forestry sector is the obvious biomass resource that can turn a climate change problem into a climate for change solution, and we are looking at that dead wood from mountain pine beetle as an opportunity and asking how we can generate bioenergy in an efficient form for the sector and small business development.”

Research projects

One organization that isn’t taking a sit-back-and-wait strategy is Genome British Columbia, which works collaboratively with government, universities, and industry as the catalyst for a genomics-driven life sciences cluster.  Genome BC used the conference as a platform to announce its involvement in two new research projects to tackle supply and demand issues in the emerging forestry biofuels industry.

The first of the two projects, which will be led by UBC’s Jack Saddler and will have a budget of $1.1 million, will use genomics to determine the most efficient methods of liberating fermentable sugars from dead pine.  This will involve breaking down the sugars with enzymes and then creating ethanol through a fermentation process.  The second project, which has a budget of $7.7 million, will aim to use genomics to optimize breeding and selection of poplars to improve their potential as a biofuel resource.  Drs. Carl Douglas and Shawn Mansfield, both of UBC, will carry out the work.  Mansfield says that poplars, which grow quickly and produce wood that is easier to convert to fermentable sugars for ethanol production than conifers, may be a viable alternative to pine once the dead pine reserves are used up.  “We need to be thinking about feedstock supply 10 to 15 years from now, so that we will have poplars ready to be harvested, which will allow us to keep up with industry demand,” he says.

In addition to the presentations, attendees had the opportunity to participate in post-conference events, including a two-day tour to the Prince George area to witness the effects of the mountain pine beetle infestation.  The tour, which was hosted by Forest Innovation Investment, included visits to forest operations, sawmills, pulp mills, wood pellet manufacturers, and cogeneration facilities.  A half-day tour of the university, including a visit to the FPInnovations biorefinery/bioenergy/biomaterials facilities was also an option. •


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