Grasses — similar to the kind that covered the Prairies in the days before settlement — could be the biofuel of the future, according to a renewable fuels expert.
Fuel produced from biomass, like switchgrass, can not only reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, but at a fraction of the cost of ethanol and biodiesel, said Roger Samson of Resource Efficient Agricultural Production (REAP) Canada.
“The opportunity exists to produce gas from grass or pellets from grass and heat buildings or even use it for transport,’’ Samson told a seminar sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Regina Tuesday.
“This (biomass) is a very viable option for the transportation sector,’’ said Samson, who’s based in Quebec.
Yet governments continue to pour millions into subsidies to produce ethanol and biodiesel, which are less energy efficient than biogas produced from switchgrass, said Samson, who’s been working in the field of bioenergy development since 1991.
“From an energy perspective, it’s the wrong thing to do as a main (bioenergy) strategy,’’ Samson said.
For example, switchgrass loses only five per cent of its energy in conversion to fuel pellets. “The more sophisticated we get in our conversion process,’’ such as converting coal to electricity, the more energy is lost, he added.
Biomass is also more efficient from an energy consumption point of view. Switchgrass pellet fuel has a ratio of energy production to consumption of 14 to one, compared with only 1.5 to one for corn-based ethanol.
From an economic perspective, converting switchgrass into pellets and burning them to heat buildings is much more cost-effective than burning ethanol or biodiesel.
And biomass fuel pellets are also more sustainable than either ethanol or biodiesel in terms of the amount of energy produced relative to an equivalent amount of fossil fuel energy. Samson said a ratio of four-to-one or higher is considered sustainable.
“Anything above four to one is where we should be focusing our resources. Anything below four to one, we should take them off the biofuels roadmap,” Samson said.
“The only thing sustaining biofuels like corn-based ethanol or biodiesel are subsidies from the taxpayer.’’
With nearly half the arable land in Canada, Saskatchewan is well-positioned to reap the benefits of this approach to biofuels production, he added.
Paul Jefferson, a research scientist at the Agriculture Canada research centre in Swift Current, said recent studies showed certain types of U.S. switchgrass could be grown in Saskatchewan, but Canadian varieties should be developed for our harsher climate and shorter growing season.