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Owen Roberts: Business Case For Energy Crops Expected To Improve

Apr 09, 2012

I’m among that crowd of Canadians who feel they’re getting taken to the cleaners by Big Oil, while governments stand by and collect tax on inflated gas prices.

Greed is the only reason that’s emerging after last week’s mean-spirited spike at the pumps. Other excuses — such as switching from winter to summer gas, problems in the Middle East and shortages due to refineries closing — have been written off as lame by industry experts.

Some people say complaining about the price of gas is like a junkie complaining about the price of dope. But I don’t accept that. Mass transit works well in many situations, but it doesn’t always fit the bill in an expansive country such as ours. In many case, driving a vehicle is a necessity.

Periodically, advances are made in renewable fuel, an energy source that’s already arrived and shows great promise for further refinement. Efforts are underway in labs and facilities across the country, including the University of Guelph, to create and improve reasonably priced bio-based fuels and products made from feedstocks, or biomass, which can be grown in Canadian farmers’ fields. As an example, a consortium of 10 scientists from seven Ontario universities came together last month, led by Guelph-based Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, to form what they’ve called the Ontario Biomaterials A-team, to zero-in on these opportunities.

Biomass production comes with its own critics who say using land to grow crops for energy is diverting it away from food production. Others say it’s not and argue farmers should be able to grow whatever they want. It’s their land. We need to recognize that despite whatever altruistic image we have of farmers — stoic, humble, serving society first — they must make a profit on whatever they grow. If we won’t pay them a reasonable price to grow food, then who can blame them for growing more lucrative crops that are turned into renewable energy, particularly if they help lessen our dependence on Big Oil and prove to be easier on the environment?

For farmers, the price of biomass has been a problem. Traditionally, they’ve been able to sell corn headed to ethanol production for a decent price. But it turns out other feedstocks — miscanthus, switchgrass, sorghum and tall prairie grass, in particular — can also produce profitable energy, according to a new report released last week. The report, Assessment of the Business Case for Purpose-Grown Biomass in Ontario, says farmers here have the potential to grow “hundreds of thousands of tonnes” of these crops. And more importantly, they can fetch a margin comparable to that of traditional cash crops, such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

That’s a significant finding. Profitability is relative compared to some other forms of energy, says Don Hewson, managing director of the Bowman Centre for Technology Commercialization in London, which had a lead role in the study. In local markets, he says, biomass is less than half the cost of heating oil and propane, which now supplies a large portion of rural Ontario. Indeed, space heating applications, using heating oil and propane, are potentially profitable markets for purpose-grown biomass pellets in Ontario.

Hewson admits large energy utilities are currently best served by coal or natural gas. But, he adds, in the near term other opportunities could arise such as agricultural biomass exports to Europe. The business case for energy crops is expected to improve even more as additional acreage is grown, especially as research in plant breeding and advances in production practices help increase yields.

“There is a future for the purpose-grown biomass industry,” says the report. “Farmers are encouraged to include these crops in Ontario’s agricultural system.”