Solid Waste & Recycling

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Cellulosic Ethanol

Energy, the economy, and the environment are the defining issues of our day. Even in the face of the global financial crisis -- and perhaps accelerated by it -- these forces will shape future public p...


Energy, the economy, and the environment are the defining issues of our day. Even in the face of the global financial crisis — and perhaps accelerated by it — these forces will shape future public policy. They will direct commercial trends. And they will dictate a great deal of change in the years ahead.

Consumers know that. Business knows that. And municipalities know that.

Of course, those in the waste management industry know it as well. What may be less well known is how the interests of that industry and the renewable fuels sector are becoming increasingly entwined.

Driven by scientific innovation, there’s an emerging commonality of interest between waste and renewable fuels; an interest that will help meet public and municipal demand for economic growth, cleaner energy, and more efficient diversion of waste.

That common interest can be summed up with one term: cellulosic ethanol. Not only does cellulosic ethanol promise cleaner and less expensive transportation fuel, it offers a built-in market for municipal waste.

In recent months, grain-based ethanol has been wrongly accused of nearly every evil under the sun. First, it was blamed for rising crop prices, which experts now agree was always false. Economist Stewart Ramsey of Global Insight went so far as to say flatly that crop prices were a “speculative bubble.” Some argued that ethanol was diverting needed crops from our food chain and creating shortages. The reality, of course, was that food shortages were the consequence of drought and maladministration in the developing world. Corn — the most common grain used for ethanol — is being harvested in record amounts, far outstripping demand generated by either food or fuel.

Finally, there have been a host of questions about the environmental bona fides of grain-based ethanol. On every score, ethanol leaves a lighter carbon footprint than fossil fuels. In fact, new federal regulations for ethanol use will cut greenhouse gases by some 4.2 Megatonnes each and every year. That’s the equivalent of removing one million cars a year from our highways.

Grain-based ethanol brings a wide number of benefits from an economic and environmental perspective. Of even greater relevance to those in the waste management industry, it has also served to build the foundation for the next generation of fuels; cellulosic fuels that can be made from non-recyclable waste products.

Unlike grain based ethanol, cellulosic biofuels can be made from a wide variety of organic stock, including municipal waste. While this technology remains new in terms of commercial applications, that’s changing quickly.

Biomass project

Nowhere is that example better on display than in Edmonton, Alberta. Canadian Renewable Fuels Association member GreenField Ethanol has teamed-up with CRFA member Enerkem, a Quebec-based firm that has developed a proprietary technology to convert biomass from municipal waste into biofuels. Together, they’re building a nearly 40 million litre plant to produce cellulosic ethanol using this new technology. It will be among the first of its kind anywhere in the world: a commercial facility producing next-generation biofuels in a way that some critics suggested would never be seen.

Excitingly, that’s not the only way in which this initiative is breaking new ground. How the biofuels are being produced and the partnership underlying that effort is equally innovative.

GreenField has struck a 25 year feedstock stock supply agreement with the city to fuel its ethanol production. The supply will be composed from diverted municipal waste.

The benefits of this arrangement are many. First and most important, the plant will show that cellulosic ethanol can be produced on a commercial scale. Second, the Edmonton facility will reduce the province of Alberta’s harmful greenhouse gas emissions by more than six million tonnes during the period of the agreement. Third, and of greatest relevance for the waste management sector, it stands as a model private-public partnership.

Municipalities looking to demonstrate leadership on diversion from landfills will find this an example to be copied. It shows that we can find new ways with new technology to transform waste into a source of revenue, energy, and environmental improvement all at once.

A similar plant is being constructed in Varennes, Quebec. It too will produce 40 million litres when it reaches full capacity.

At the end of the day, the true lesson of GreenField and Enerkem’s cellulosic leadership is that it highlights the potential for new partnerships. Working together, the biofuels industry, municipalities, and the waste management sector can achieve tremendous gains. We can create jobs and economic growth. We can combat climate change. We can produce new cleaner energy alternatives. And we can diminish the burden faced by those in waste management. That’s a winning alternative.

Gordon Quaiattini is President of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association in Ottawa, Ontario. Contact Gordon at g.quaiattini@greenfuels.org

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“GreenField has struck a 25 year feedstock supply agreement with the city to fuel its ethanol production.”


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