Plenty of products come from bioenergy industry

Developing an ag bioenergy industry around ethanol and biodiesel only is a bit like grinding an entire side of beef — prime cuts and all — into hamburger.

Developing an ag bioenergy industry around ethanol and biodiesel only is a bit like grinding an entire side of beef — prime cuts and all — into hamburger.

This was one of the messages that Morley Kjarbaard, an industry development officer with Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education, delivered on Thursday during a presentation in Red Deer.

Kjarbaard, who manages the department’s bioindustrial portfolio, was speaking at a breakfast meeting organized by Central Alberta: Access Prosperity as part of its Agri-Trade activities.

He described how traditional bioenergy feedstocks like wheat, canola and livestock manure can be used to produce dozens of chemicals and secondary chemicals, and a variety of marketable products.

Butanol, for example, is an industrial solvent that can be used as gas replacement and in the production of plastics, among other products, said Kjarbaard. A Chinese company is already producing butanol from corn, and sees grain straw as another potential feedstock.

Succinic acid, which is used to produce goods ranging from cosmetics to personal care products to plastics, is another potential bioproduct for Alberta producers, suggested Kjarbaard.

International chemical company BioAmber Inc. plans to convert forestry biomass into succinic acid at Sarnia, Ont., and coffee giant Starbucks is looking to do the same with coffee grounds.

“I think when you start to look at it in that kind of detail, you start to realize there are some real opportunities,” he said, adding that such niche markets would not require huge plants to be competitive.

“As you get better at producing those bio-based products, the cost comes down. And then, not only can you compete on environmental and performance qualities or characteristics . . . you start to compete on price as well.”

Kjarbaard’s involvement in Alberta’s bioenergy industry dates back to the province’s Nine-Point Bioenergy Plan, which was announced in 2006.

He related how Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development felt bioenergy could create a new market for wheat, canola and biogas, as well as a way to promote rural development and environmental protection.

“The world has changed considerably since then, but I think there’s still a good value proposition for agriculture,” said Kjarbaard, adding that rural communities have benefited and that bioenergy has been proven to bring environmental benefits.

When the incentives and grants included in the Nine-Point Bioenergy Plan failed to generate the interest hoped, the province went a step farther and legislated a renewable fuels standard (RFS) that requires gasoline here to contain five per cent ethanol, and diesel to have two per cent biodiesel. That equates to approximately 300 million litres of ethanol and 70 million litres of biodiesel per year.

Currently, said Kjarbaard, Alberta produces only 40 million litres of ethanol annually — all at the Permolex Ltd. plant in Red Deer — and no biodiesel.

“We do have some production coming online,” he said, “and hopefully within short order we’ll have enough production to meet our provincial mandate.”

Among the pending bioenergy projects in Alberta is Kyoto Fuels Corp.’s 66-million litre biodiesel plant at Lethbridge and Archer Daniels Midland Co.’s 265-million litre biodiesel plant in Lloydminster.

“If those two projects come on line we’ll more than exceed our 70-million litre requirement in the RFS,” said Kjarbaard.

Meanwhile, a 40-million litre ethanol plant is being constructed near Vegreville as part of the Growing Power Hairy Hill L.P. integrated biorefinery, where a biogas facility already exists. And Quebec’s Enerkem Inc. has partnered with the City of Edmonton to build a “waste-to-biofuels” facility that would convert an anticipated 100,000 tonnes of solid municipal waste into nearly 40 million litres of ethanol a year.

“I think we are making good strides at using a variety of feedstocks and not just relying on agricultural commodities,” said Kjarbaard.

Asked how bioindustry can be encouraged here, Kjarbaard said the challenge is access to capital, labour and resources.

“Projects in our province face really stiff competition from other industries, namely oil and gas and petrochemical, for those resources.

“It’s hard for our bioenergy projects to get a piece of that investment.”

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