The health and material well-being of modern democratic societies depends upon reliable supplies of energy. To date, and for all the right reasons, fossil fuels have been the primary source of energy for most of the world. Indeed, rising fossil fuel consumption is a reliable indicator that a society or country is in the process of industrialization and development that usually leads to a general improvement in its welfare.
Fossil fuels will remain the primary source of energy for modern industrial societies for the foreseeable future, but it behooves us to be always searching for new and innovative energy sources. Reliance on imported oil, especially in the United States, makes our countries vulnerable to supply disruptions and oil price “shocks;” events that can have serious economic consequences.
Many sources of alternative energy have been or are being investigated ranging from solar energy, to wind power, to hydrogen fuel cells, or to what are referred to as “biofuels.” Biofuels refers to energy that has been extracted from either plant material or composted waste. One of the most common biofuels, ethanol, is produced by the fermentation of grain, usually corn or wheat. Ethanol can be added to gasoline, resulting in the fuel known colloquially as “gasohol.”
A number of governments in Canada and the United States are promoting ethanol and some, such as Minnesota, have mandated all fuel sold at filling stations contain a certain percentage. Ostensibly, an increase in ethanol use will not only improve the environment but will also improve grain prices for farmers. Unfortunately, none of these gains have materialized. The environmental benefits are dubious at best, and quite possibly negative. The improvements in grain prices amount to a few cents per bushel, not enough to make any difference to the rural economy.
The paper titled “Pelletized Biofuels – An Opportunity for Manitoba,” published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, provides a refreshing analysis of the newest idea in biofuels. It explores the potential of an alternative heating fuel, the combustion of pelletized grass using efficient “gasifier” technology. The authors present a compelling case for the use of this fuel source. Not only will it provider alternate markets for farmers, but the combustion process is much cleaner than conventional fuels. The authors estimate that 23 million acres of land in Canada and 130 million in the United States could be converted to this type of energy production.
The most favourable species of grass for this is a North American perennial plant known as “switchgrass.” As a native species, this grass is well adapted to the North American plains and requires no energy-intensive annual cultivation. The environmental benefits of this type of land conversion would be considerable since the first acreage placed in this type of production system would likely be marginal lands less suited to conventional crops.
The authors of this paper have carried out a first-class analysis and their conclusions deserve careful scrutiny.