Psst! Heard on the Floor at the International Bioenergy Conference

June 21, 2016 |

BD TS 062216 IBC smIs that Miss Scarlet in the Library with the Rope, or Mr. Licella in Canada with biomass? In British Columbia, the experts convene and unveil the unusual suspects.

The eyes of the world might well be on tiny Prince George, British Columbia these days — because that is the proposed site of Canfor’s commercial-scale biofuels and chemicals project. The success of such a venture could well signal the long-awaited opening of the North American pulp & paper industry as potential sites for biofuels projects using woody biomass as a feedstock.

It may catch industry observers by surprise that the wood-rich Southeast, which has been home to so much lower-value pellet mill activity, would not have been the location of a first commercial-scale project for a miller. Or that the technology would have been Licella’s, “the Wonder from Down Under”, instead one of the many originally developed in the US. But Prince George and Licella may well take the prize, though feasibility, engineering and construction activity lies ahead and it will be some time before the project is in operation.

This past week in the northern British Columbian city, the International Bioenergy Congerence attracted some 260 industry players and leaders for a series of early-summer discussions and presentations focused mostly around forest resources.

Some of the delegates were very aptly surnamed, we have to observe, right out of a game of Clue. There was a Ms. Wood and a Ms. Plant on hand. Or, a Mr. Dubois for those Canadians preferring the French. A Mr. Hobby highlighting an early-stage project. And a Mr. Mabee explaining why the pulp & paper industry had substantial opportunities in bioenergy but hadn’t quite yet seized them. Among tentatively scheduled speakers unable in the end to make it, a Mr. May.

If Professor Plum and Colonel Mustard had taken the stage we wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

Here are some highlight comments heard on stage and on the floor.

“Confident that we have the tools.”

John Martin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, highlighted the province’s Fiber Action Plan — especially as it aims to remove excess fiber and residue not suitable for traditional markets. “We know that challenges lie ahead,” Martin asserted, “but we are confident that we have the tools to meet those challenges.”

Fits and Starts

Warren Mabee of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy said that Western Canada could support up to 1 million barrels per year of fuels and chemicals from softwoods, and 1 million barrels from hardwoods, out of a total Canadian demand of 96 million barrels per year.

He described wood as “a chemical and energy storage system” with a wide diversity and opportunities varying widely based on species. He noted that “energy is one of the things that falls under government purview, and that why so much of what we do revolves around energy,” but described energy as the lowest value product. He highlighted opportunities in advanced biomaterials such as disposable k-cups, and highlighted companies such as BASF and NatureWorks working on compostable replacement.

“Broken telegraphs,” he said were an aspect of the state of play right now. “A disconnect in scale between chemicals and energy, and a disconnect between markets and producers where consumers aren’t aware of the benefits of bioenergy, and “a lot of disinformation” has been circulated “about the role of bioenergy and bioproducts”. He said that the result is that new technologies “end up competing directly with fossil products”.

“We need government help across the spectrum,” he noted. “Commercialization is where we have slowed down. Groups like SDTC are there, but we don’t have the pilot and demo program and these techs need to be proven. Infrastructure spending has been in fits and starts. Under the new Trudeau government, we’re making a start, but we might have a fit when we see what it costs.”

He said carbon pricing was not enough; it would only drive investment into wind and solar, and away from bioenergy. “Mandates are useful,” he said, “but the world is moving on from mandates, and we need a mechanism that will drive innovation, and policies that address all aspects from R&D to scale.”

Wild, Wild West

William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics observed that there was “overcapacity in pellet markets”, modest until last year but deepening in 2016 — “too many pellets chasing too few buyers”. He projected, on the good news side, that excess capacity would be “soaked up by 2018” and “hopefully capacity grows in a more rational way” from the “Wild West a few years ago.

“Going to learn more in the next 12-24 months than we have in the past 50 years”

Don Roberts, CEO of Nawitka Capital Advisors said that, in the context of energy markets, “biofuels investment is a rounding error” and noted that global first-gen biofuels investment has dropped 80 percent since 2007. “industrials have chosen not to invest. You can blame the low cost of natural gas, the declining costs for other renewables, improvements in power storage technologies, blend wall anxiety, the difficulty of reducing the cost of biomass or the ongoing uncertainty in public policy.” But Roberts noted that “we expect the relative attractiveness of biobased electricity to continue to increase over time” as global mandates bite.

In liquid fuels, he said that next-gen technology investment peaked in 2011-12 but has, on the whole, been better than first-gen. He described “some deals in the advanced sector” — such as cap raises by Cool Planet, Amyris, TerraVia, Elevance, Bioamber, Newlight and REG, but described the deals as “small”, and said that major venture investors such as Khosla, Kleiner Perkins and Flagship has “moved on” while strategics have been slow in coming. He said that “UPM in Europe, Oji in Asia, Fibria in South America and Georgia Pacific/Koch in North America have been the most active, although he said “G-P has been in stealth mode.”

He said that Quebec has the most thoughtful formal strategy including the 5-year $170 million Fonds Valoisation Bois, and described British Columbia’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard as “interesting, but not well-known.”

He said that the industry needs “to focus on what is truly unique about biomass,” especially its ability to produce things other than electrons — incouding liquid fuels, chemicals and advanced materials” and said that we would learn more “in the next 12-24 months than we have in the past 50 years” about the future of cellulosic biofuels.

“Government must get out of the business of picking winners and losers and instead recognize the cost of carbon.”

It’s what the rest of the world is doing about climate change.

In a keynote address, Jeff Rubin, former Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets, and now author of The Carbon Bubble and The End of Growth, said that it is not Alberta or Canada’s emissions relating to oil sands that would be a defining issue for Canada’s energy prospects.

Instead he said that “the actions taken by the rest of the world to mitigate climate change…destroying billions of barrels of future oil demand” would “only worsen the outlook for oil sands and all swing producers”. He said that the issue is not whether oil sands are dirty, but that the high costs make it so vulnerable. Next to Arctic production, he said, they are the highest costs in the world, and Alberta is the marginal producer that benefited the most from triple digit oil. It turned something commercially unfeasible into the world’s 3rd largest oil reserve.

“The world is implementing a 450 ppm threshold for greenhouse gases, aimed at capping climate change to 2 degrees. Capping at 450 implies not only dramatic changes in use, but imminent change in the use of fossil fuels.”

Business as usual, he said, based on growth in energy demand would leave the world flirting with 700 parts per million greenhouse levels by the end of the century. “That would cause rising seas, 600 million people at direct risk, dramatically changing precipitation, and extreme climate events.”

“So, to cap emissions at 450 parts per million, we have 1000 Gigatons left to emit, and that may not seem like a problem, but last year we emitted 32 gigatons globally. So we have 30 years left, then the whole global economy has to shift 100% to renewables. We can extend that by 60 years with a 50% reduction. But we are looking at dramatic and sustained reduction.”

How do we achieve that? Rubin highlighted two paths. One, deep decarbonization. Two, no growth, or even decline, in the world economy.

“One thing you can count on, emissions fall without exception during recessions regardless of climate policy,” Rubin said. “They dropped 10% in Canada even after Prime Minister Harper pulled out of Kyoto.” He said that to meet IEA targets for the 450 ppm scenario, world oil demand would have to fall to no more than 74 million barrels by 2040 and 80 million barrels by 2030. Rubin said that oil sands struggle today, with demand in the 90 million barrels per day range, to remain viable. “Much of what has been shut in, won’t come back, there’s no room for high cost oil.”

But Rubin warned that markets are not getting right signal on decarbonizing, He said the real battle is going to be in transport and industrials and that’s where carbon taxes are essential.

He said that Canada would need $30 as an entry point for carbon prices, not as an end point, and $50 by 2020, to have a chance to meet emission targets.

“Critics say that unilateral attempts to reduce emissions are subject to migration of those emissions,” Rubin warned, and “there’s no point if agreements simply encourage migration of emissions to countries that have lower targets.” But granting exemptions so that companies won;t migrate — as we’ve seen in California where chemical steel and oil industrials have been granted some protection, will put all of the burden onto buildings and transportation.”

He said that when Ontario exempted 102 companies from climate targets, they exempted 42 of its 48 megatonnes of emissions in the industrial sector.

He said that’s the wrong policy.

“The provision of free credits encourages industry to continue its practices. Take the cement industry, if instead of excluding cement, we had a carbon tax, we would get substitution of new and advanced materials for cement.”

The solution, he said, is to be found not just in carbon prices but in carbon tariffs. “Canadians have the right to expect a level playing field, and a carbon border is the answer. A carbon tariff, that is, with a carbon price on imports the same as on the price of carbon exports. That would meet world trade rules, and Canada can pursue bilateral agreements as it did with NAFTA.

“Critics say that carbon prices hurt jobs, but a carbon tariff would bring jobs back home instead of sending them overseas but placing emphasis on new technologies. There would be a sunset on old industry but a sunrise on renewable technology.

The role of government?

“They must get out of the business of picking winners and losers and instead recognize the cost of carbon. At $20-$30 per ton it is difficult, but at $70-$75 per ton the market will be fully capable of recognizing how the economy will be decarbonized. Otherwise, when the oil price falls then it’s not Teslas people will be buying, but SUVs. If we price carbon high enough we will get the transition, and we won’t need the taxpayers to grease the switch.”

Overdelivering on carbon targets in BC

Michael Rensing at the British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines brought good news on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. He said that the carbon intensity target was 2.5% but delivery to date had been a 3.4% emissions reduction.

He noted that the California market price is $120/ton for carbon credits, and noted the wide range of technologies that had entered the market for low-carbon fuels. He said that gasoline averaged 93 grams of carbon, while ethanol technologies had registered in the -3 to 75 range, 15 to 95 for biodiesel and 13 to 94 grams for drop-in fuels. He said that BC’s road transport was now 6% renewables: 2.6% ethanol, 1.2% biodiesel and 1.4% other low-carbon fuels and less than 1% all other technologies including natural gas and electrics.

“Operating jobs today, new products tomorrow.”

Susan Wood-Bohm of Alberta Innovates Biosolutions presented research on the impacts of using biomass for GHG management, and said that $320 million had been invested in 100 projects with a potential impact of 11 megatonnes by 2020, proving 15,000 person-years of employment and adding 1.95B to Alberta’s GDP. She said that “you can’t move directly to renewables like wind and solar without stranding energy assets; using biogenic carbon is a best path option.

She noted that blending renewable carbon with existing sources led to more job creation for Alberta than wind and solar projects, and that there were transferable skill sets from the oil and gas sector. “We get operating jobs today, and new products tomorrow.”

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