Satisfying the world’s energy needs

NEW REPORT SAYS AGRICULTURE WILL BE A KEY PLAYER IN SUSTAINABLE ENERGY PRODUCTION

by 2050, all the energy needed to supply the world could come from renewable sources. That’s the conclusion presented in The Energy Report, a two-part study released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and project partner consultancy, Ecofys.

Two years in the making, The Energy Report spells out the main challenges and possible strategies to achieve a world run almost entirely on renewable energy. What is most remarkable from the report is that a transition to renewable sources is not only possible, but it can be cost-effective, clean and sustainable.

doing it all
“It’s possible to move away from fossil fuels to renewables at the scale scientists are saying we need to,” says Josh Laughren, Director of Climate Change and Energy at WWF Canada. “It won’t be easy or simple, but it is doable. The caveat is we have to start now because it will take a lot of work over the next number of decades to hit this target.”

There are two key aspects that must be addressed for the world to meet its energy needs from renewable sources, says Laughren. Firstly, the existing demand must be reduced by improving energy efficiency and reducing wasteful use of energy. Secondly, the use of electricity must be maximized because this form of energy is most readily generated from renewables.

While electricity derived from sources such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal are the main focus, the report suggests bioenergy (liquid biofuels and solid biomass) can fill the gaps where electricity is not viable – including as fuels for airplanes, ships and trucks, and in industrial processes that require very high temperatures. Bioenergy can provide alternatives in these scenarios where energy density is needed and mass storage is a challenge.

In effect, the report suggests the world won’t be using more energy in 2050 than it does today, despite the growth in population that is estimated to hit 9 billion over the same time period.

agricultural opportunity
“It’s a pretty aggressive revolution,” says bioenergy specialist, Don O’Connor, S&T Squared Consultants Inc., of the recommendations in The Energy Report. “Some aspects are absolutely the right thing to do, while others will have some major hurdles.”

In Canada, shifting from fossil fuels to electrification from renewables will be a tough transition. Currently, more than 70 percent of Canada’s energy consumption is derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. O’Connor suggests it will be a big adjustment to replace these sources with wind, solar, biomass and other bioenergy options to grow the piece of the energy pie that’s currently 25 percent electricity. He believes Canadian agriculture has a lot of potential to be part of this growth, though the industry is not yet set up to be most efficient.

“Some technologies are ready and others have a way to go to be economically viable,” O’Connor says. “We’re going to need a lot more options to boost our renewable energy supply.”

potential in domestic markets
Other than Ontario, O’Connor says most provinces are not set up to export bioenergy-related products viably to other countries. However, he believes there is bigger potential in developing domestic markets, which in turn will allow farmers to be more in control of their destiny.

As an example of the potential for domestic bioenergy markets, he points to the success of ethanol in the last number of years. He says the agricultural industry successfully nurtured into existence 20 ethanol plants, with support from government incentives. While the rate of building these plants has dropped off, the demand for ethanol supply domestically is still strong – particularly because of regulations encouraging the use of ethanol in fuel blends. Industry ultimately used 50 percent more than they were required to under regulations, driving increased demand for biofuels. At this point, O’Connor says there’s room for growth as Canadian plants can’t keep up with the current demand: almost three billion litres in 2011 – so more than one billion litres of biofuel were imported from the US last year to fill the void.

Similar success stories can be told for biochemical initiatives in Ontario, such as those that see crops being incorporated into plastics for vehicle parts, as well as in biomass production, including the use of forestry product waste in plants for jet fuel production.

Ontario has made some moves to use pellets instead of coal in large generators, however other provinces are lagging, says O’Connor. The largest market for pellets is Europe, though O’Connor warns against reliance on this market. “Europe’s market is supported by differential taxes on biomass versus fossil fuels, but with the financial constraints now facing these governments these programs may not last.”

sustainable growth
The use of crops for these bio initiatives is a hot topic, O’Connor says. The potential for crop use is there, though it needs to be balanced with existing demands for land use. 

Laughren agrees: “There’s a lot of potential for bioenergy but it needs to be developed in a way which doesn’t create more problems than it solves.” In particular, he stresses that the use of crop land for biomass production should be implemented in a way that doesn’t compete with land used for livestock and human food sources. He says Canada  has lots of room to capitalize on renewable energy opportunities with its large geography and relatively small population.

Both Laughren and O’Connor agree that the biggest challenge in Canada is the lack of a formalized energy policy. “There’s a lot of talk in Canada about how we need an energy strategy, but the approach so far has been a very limited view,” says Laughren, describing how the focus has been primarily on developing Western oil sands production.

He believes there is an appetite to look at how energy is produced and used in Canada, to provide the most benefit and suggests it may be a push from the grassroots level that finally gets the initiative moving with a coordinated approach. Laughren says it will take groups like the agricultural industry to make a point that they want to be at the discussion table and be included.

“We need to get coordinated on this issue otherwise our potential will go untapped and unrealized, or developed poorly in a way that won’t help any of us.”

global progress
Evaluating renewable opportunities and products should get easier in the next few years, says Laughren. He describes a global multi-stakeholder process that’s underway called the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels. This roundtable is working to set voluntary standards that can lead to a level of environmental certification – similar to initiatives already in place such as the Forest Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council that promote and certify products originating through responsible forest and marine management.

While in the early days, Laughren says the group has been tasked with negotiating certification standards that are practical, doable, fair and equitable.

“Ultimately, If you’re selling a product, it will give you an avenue to achieve independent certification that lends credibility to what you’ve done, and if you’re buying a product, seeing the certification should give you assurance that what you’re buying has the level of sustainability it says it does,” says Laughren.

In the meantime, what can farmers do to forge ahead on their own? Laughren suggests farmers can be open to innovation and continue to drive toward additional markets. O’Connor encourages farmers to remember to use the three “M’s” as a measuring stick when evaluating potential new ventures: Money, Management and Market. “Be careful of people making products with no market, and be careful of those promising that they can do 50 percent of the world’s production,” O’Connor says. “There is no silver bullet.” •