Coal is a Dirty Word in Ontario — Let the Biomass Love-In Begin

Owen RobertsOntario isn’t letting politically charged energy issues such as the ongoing gas plant cancellation controversy get in its way of its clean air policy development…and neither should farmers.

Regardless of what party is in office after the next election, over the past couple of weeks it’s become even clearer the future of energy production here will increasingly rely on renewable sources.

And that has big implication for farmers.

Agriculture wasn’t specifically named earlier this week when Ontario announced the last of its coal-fired power plants was being closed down, but the implication was clear. “The province has replaced coal generation with a mix of emission-free electricity sources like nuclear, waterpower, wind and solar, along with lower-emission electricity sources like natural gas and biomass,” it said.

Click hereIt followed up a couple of days later with what it called a “handy” infographics package for journalists (at left), in which it claims eliminating coal-fired electricity is the single largest climate-change initiative in North America.

People will argue with that claim – especially those who deny climate change is a reality, those who think humans contribute very little to it, those who blame cattle for it, and those who don’t think we can do anything about it one way or another.

That’s quite a crowd.

But no matter what, the province has taken a stand against what it calls “dirty” power sources. And it believes biomass is not one of them.

The coal-fired power proclamation followed a less dramatic announcement a week or so earlier by the province that once again affected a significant portion of the farm community – that is, the Greener

Diesel initiative, which is widely being touted as a springboard for economic growth and environmental sustainability.

This initiative, which went into effect April 1, calls for at least two per cent biodiesel to be blended into petroleum diesel now. That amount will rise to at least four per cent by 2017.

Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said his organization favours this initiative because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, encourages investment in the fuel industry and mandates the use of an agriculturally derived product.

The soybean sector, which is expected to provide the fodder for this mandate, was ecstatic. It had been campaigning for such a program for well over a year.

Henry Van Ankum, Chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario, said developing and supporting a local, domestic biofuels and bioproducts market is a priority for his organization.

“The creation of an Ontario Greener Diesel mandate will reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by the transportation sector, and will help build a market for made-in-Ontario soy biodiesel,” he said.

According to Van Ankum, biofuel made from soybeans reduces greenhouse gas emission by 85 per cent.

The bottom line for farmers is that the new regulations provide a potential market for 680,000 tonnes of soybeans.

Again, people will argue about the economics of soy diesel production. The Ontario Biodiesel Producers Association says the province developed its own system of calculations for greenhouse gas emissions for blended diesel, and ended up creating a formula that reduces the suggested two per cent mandate to a true effect of less than a quarter of that volume.

Other critics will challenge the environmental sustainability of such a measure, worried it will come at the expense of biomass that would normally be turned back into the soil, keeping it supplied with the organic matter it needs to replenish itself.

Researchers are responding to environmental concerns. At the University of Guelph, biomass studies — most of which are funded by the province – have been long underway to determine how much biomass the earth needs to stay healthy, as well as the kinds of biomass sources besides soybeans that can be used for renewable energy production.

Researchers have seen the writing on the wall, and have been encouraged by the province to help lay a sustainable foundation for the future. Farmers need to likewise recognize the drive towards biomass as an opportunity. It’s hard to imagine Ontario under any government going back on this.

Ontario is supposed to be the province of agricultural diversification. There’s no need to wait and see how this is going to play out. It already has.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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