Ottawa may pave the way for ethanol

Iogen 2

 

From day one, we’ve been seriously off course in efforts to bring greenhouse gases under control. And now, according to a recent federal study, we’ve veered even farther off course, thanks largely to companies that produce fossil fuels.

As a nation, we committed ourselves in December 1997 to pushing emissions 6 per cent below 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012. At that time, projections indicated that at the rate we were going, by 2010 our emissions would be higher than the target by 21 percent. So we needed a major effort to cut back.

However, a study released last December by Natural Resources Canada, says our performance has worsened. Instead of closing in on the target, we are going in the opposite direction, and we can expect to exceed it by 26 per cent in 2010, if present trends continue.

The main culprits are producers of fossil fuels — oil, gas, and coal companies — which account for 60 per cent of the increase. They rank third in total emissions, and are expected to release 123 million tonnes (megatonnes, or Mt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2010.

In first place is the transportation sector with 197 Mt of emissions expected in 2010. In second place is the industrial sector, which has reduced expected emissions by 3 per cent to 138 Mt since the target was set.

Paradoxical as it may seem, these figures make me optimistic about the future, because I think I may have seen the future at Iogen Corp. in Ottawa. As I described in last week’s column, Iogen and PetroCanada will open Canada’s first ethanol-from-cellulose plant in August. Ethanol is a high performance substitute for gasoline.

When it is made from plant fibre — switchgrass or agricultural waste, such as straw from wheat, oats, or barley — ethanol is responsible for a negligible net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. For instance, gasoline over its life cycle — from well to wheel, as they say — is responsible for emitting 3,135 grams of CO2 per litre of fuel. Ethanol made from plant fibre is responsible for emitting 15.4 grams per litre.

So, as you displace gasoline with « cellulosic ethanol,’’  you cut back not only emissions from car engines, but emissions from the gasoline manufacturers. In short, you reduce emissions from two of the biggest problem sectors: transportation and fossil fuel production.

But, in order to be optimistic, there has to be an expectation that displacement is possible. And here, I’m happy to report, car manufacturers are already selling vehicles adapted to ethanol.

They are called flexible fuel, or E85 vehicles, meaning they are capable of running on a mixture of ethanol and gasoline that is anything from zero to 85 per cent ethanol. That means if you fill up with ethanol and run hat of fuel, with no ethanol station in sight, you can top up your tank with gasoline. It’s a very practical arrangement.

Ford of Canada offers Ranger pickups and Taurus sedans as flexible fuel vehicles. Daimler Chrysler offers a minivan. General Motors offers the Sonoma truck. All are available at the same price as regular vehicles, or at a small extra charge.

All we need now is the availability of fuel — and Iogen and PetroCan will be taking the first step toward that in August. Then the car companies can increase the number of E85 models they offer.

So in the beginning, who will be the most logical purchaser of E85 vehicles? I think it will be owners of fleets with fuel pumps on site, and first among these will be the federal government of Canada.

In the 1998-99 fiscal year it bought 2,409 vehicles. Three of them were E85. Under the Alternative Fuels Act, passed in 1995, 75 per cent of its vehicles must run on alternative fuels « where it is cost effective and operationally feasible to do so.’’

Last year it found that only 218 vehicles qualified. Now, with the initiatives from Iogen-PetroCan and the car companies, the number that can qualify is about to increase. And as the federal government’s fleet changes, maybe others will too.

So yes, I am optimistic. Very much so.

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