But critics argue that, at best, ethanol is of marginal help in the fight to slow climate change. Mostly, governments are pushing ethanol production to help the farm economy, they say.
Whether ethanol does more good than harm depends how it is made -- how much, if any, fossil fuel is burned in producing it and how much new land is cleared for ethanol crops.
European countries require that ethanol production results in at least 30 per cent fewer GHG emissions than fossil fuel production.
In Alberta, ethanol production must achieve 25 per cent fewer GHG emissions, says Matthew Machielse, executive director of alternative energy for Alberta Energy.
But the devil is in the details. The province has not yet decided whether that 25-per-cent benchmark will be based on the GHG emissions from conventional oil production, or the much higher GHG emissions from oilsands production.
If oilsands are the benchmark, the level of required GHG reductions for ethanol may not be high and therefore its effectiveness will be limited in the battle to slow climate change.
The benchmark will probably be a blend, says Machielse.
Highmark Renewables, with its new combination of manure power and ethanol production at a feedlot near Vegreville, will have no trouble meeting the 25-per-cent standard, says Machielse. "This type of integrated facility is a significant improvement on the carbon footprint for ethanol and that's what we want to grow."
Highmark says it will also meet a more stringent, low-carbon fuel standard that has been set for British Columbia and California.
Highmark's use of renewable power definitely improves the environmental footprint of its ethanol, says Jesse Rowe of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think-tank. Any process using waste is a step forward.
But the negative side of most commercial ethanol production is the "induced land-use change," he says -- how much land is taken out of food production or how much rainforest is cut to grow sugar cane for Brazilian ethanol, for example. Clearing land is an energy-intensive activity while chopping down rainforest means a loss of the world's major carbon sink, he says.
In Canada, the debate over how to calculate ethanol's negative environmental impact on land is raging now at the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.
In Alberta, under the province's climate change plan, ethanol producers don't have to take into account the emissions from growing the feedstock in calculating their emission reductions, he adds.
"Not all ethanol plants are created equal," U.S. experts Richard Plevin and Steffen Mueller wrote in a 2007 article in an industry publication. In the U.S., for instance, for corn-based ethanol plants that run on coal-fired electricity, the fuel that comes out "is just as hard on the climate as gasoline," they say.
But California's 2007 decision to adopt a low-carbon standard for all fuel will force ethanol plants to get more efficient and reduce their GHG emissions, they argue. Interestingly, they say, U.S. corn-based plants could significantly reduce their GHG footprint by integrating with cattle feedlots and using methane from digested manure to power the plants.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal