A New Fuel for the 21st Century

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The health and material well-being of modern societies depend upon reliable supplies of energy. Fossil fuels, our primary source, will remain that for the foreseeable future. But reliance on imported oil, especially in the United States, makes us vulnerable to supply disruptions and oil price “shocks,” events with serious economic consequences.

It behoves us to search for new and innovative energy sources. Many alternatives have been or are being investigated. They range from solar energy, to wind power, to hydrogen fuel cells, or to what are referred to as “biofuels.” The latter refers to energy that has been extracted from either plant material or composted waste. One of the most common, ethanol, is produced by fermenting 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 that a certain percentage of ethanol be contained in all gasoline. Ostensibly, an increase in ethanol use will not only improve the environment but will also improve grain prices for farmers. Unfortunately, none of these anticipated gains have materialized, and the environmental improvements are dubious at best. On October 7, 2003, the Wall Street Journal noted, with regard to ethanol’s supposed environmental benefits, that: “The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded it is no better, and may be worse, than conventional gasoline.” Any improvements in grain prices amount to a few cents per bushel, not enough to make any difference to the rural economy.

Despite the problems with ethanol, the provision of renewable energy from biological sources is worth pursuing. One option receiving more recent attention is “pelletized biofuels.” The information in a Frontier paper titled “Pelletized Biofuels – An Opportunity for Manitoba,” first appeared at a 2001 conference on climate change. Co-authored by researchers from Resource Efficient Agricultural Production Canada and the Toronto-based think tank Energy Probe (www.energyprobe.org ), the paper provides a refreshing analysis of the newest idea in biofuels. It can be downloaded from the Frontier Centre’s website at www.fcpp.org.

It makes a compelling case for the combustion of pelletized grass, using efficient “gasifier” technology. Not only will this fuel provide alternate markets for farmers, but the combustion process is much cleaner than conventional heating fuels and very efficient, with 19 units of energy produced for every unit used in harvesting. 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 use is a perennial North American 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.

Unlike ethanol, the environmental and economic benefits of providing fuel from land under a permanent “conservation blanket” of perennial, native grasses are compelling. The authors of this paper have carried out a first-class analysis and their conclusions deserve careful scrutiny.

Policy Series Study 18 – Pelletized Biofuels – An Opportunity for Manitoba