Biofuels and the Diversification of Alberta’s Economy

Alberta’s economy has historically relied heavily on the oil & gas industry. As a result, the decline in oil prices in 2015 had a significant impact on the province, which suffered a net loss of over 19,000 jobs. Alberta’s resources are not limited to a wealth of oil & gas resources, the province is also rich in ecosystem services like biomass that could be leveraged for renewable energy. The Government of Alberta (GOA) took note of the provincial effects the drop in oil prices had, and committed to strengthening economic resilience through diversification and renewable energy investment.

Biomass and Biofuels – the Answer?

In order to understand how the Alberta government could diversify, we ask the question; “what forms of renewable energy are available in Alberta”? There are wind and solar power options, but other renewables exist and might be necessary for a more consistent source of electricity generation. This leads us to biomass. Biomass is material of biological origin, such as trees, plants, and animals, but excludes fossilized materials. Similar to fossilized material, it can be converted into fuels (biofuels) for energy. Biofuels are not a new concept, nor are they an inaccessible technology. Part of the reason for the limited use of biofuels is the uncertainty associated with access to markets and volumes of inputs (biomass).

A woodpile is an example of biomass.

Biofuel Benefits

Many biomass feedstocks are traditionally viewed as waste streams. Converting waste streams into productive inputs can help industries reduce costs and even provide profits where none existed before. There is potential to convert plant matter (trees, agricultural residues), used vegetable oils, animal fats, algae, municipal solid waste (MSW), sewage and other pools into biofuels. A handful of mills in Alberta are already taking advantage of this idea by using traditional waste streams, like hog fuel and sawdust, to power their mills. Alberta‘s Climate Leadership Plan is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the province. To achieve reductions, the plan involves the introduction of a carbon levy which comes into place on January 1, 2017 at $20 per tonne of carbon followed by an increase to $30 per tonne starting January 1, 2018. This levy will make fossil fuels more expensive due to the amount of carbon they emit. The income generated from the levy will be partially designated to fund renewable energy projects. Investing in biofuels has the potential to reduce the overall amount of GHG emitted because relative to fossil fuels, they have lower GHG emissions. Biofuels could be a substitute for the fossil fuels we use every day for transportation, electricity, and heating.

Wheat straw could be used as input into bioethanol production.

The Alberta Advantage

Not only are natural resources abundant in Alberta, but human resources are as well. The province is full of people ready to fill the next labour market void. Biofuel and bio-product industries could be Alberta’s new markets. They would offer roles related to biofuel and bio-products production, such as transportation and distribution opportunities, production plant jobs and even planning, research, and policy development openings. Investment in bio-products and biofuels could potentially help the province rebound from its current economic situation, while also introducing new opportunities for future development.

The Government of Alberta is moving away from coal energy and investing in renewables, giving biofuels a promising future in the province. The problem, faced by many potential biofuel and bio-product industry investors, is a lack of information about the location and amount of biomass in the province. This lack of information creates substantial uncertainties which leads to an under supply of investments.

In order to mitigate some of that uncertainty, Alberta Innovates-Bio Solutions, in partnership with Silvacom, is designing the Bio-Resource Information Management System (BRIMS). BRIMS is being created to specifically respond to the need for a high quality dataset of Alberta’s biomass and other ecosystem services. It will help connect the dots from the bio-resource supply to the bio-energy and bio-product demand and market, and will take two forms: a web application ( and the BRIMS data. will launch in 2017 and will facilitate access to basic information about Alberta’s biomass and other ecosystem services through an easy-to-use web application. The BRIMS data will be the best way to access dependable, up-to-date, and spatially explicit data about Alberta’s biomass and other ecosystem services and will assist with investment decisions.

For custom analysis, mapping, and detailed business case support using the BRIMS data, contact Silvacom today.