Canada’s renewable fuels industry was built from the ground up by entrepreneurs. Today, it continues to flourish under industry leaders who understand that businesses can do good for the economy and the environment at the same time. It’s not either or.

It all started with an artichoke

One of Canada’s pioneer ethanol companies was Greenfield Global. In 1987, on the Bruce Peninsula, the company tried to use Jerusalem artichokes as a potential feedstock to make ethanol. While this didn’t work, it led to Greenfield constructing an industrial alcohol plant at the new energy park in Tiverton, ON using local corn and cheap steam from the adjacent nuclear plant.

The rest is history. Today, Greenfield  is the largest ethanol producer in the country, owning and operating four ethanol distilleries, three specialty chemical manufacturing and packaging plants, and three next-generation biofuel and renewable energy R&D centres.

“Greenfield’s commitment to innovation and the environment is evidenced by the products we produce and the processes we use to make them,” says Howard Field, President and CEO of Greenfield Global. “We constantly assess every step of the production cycle to make it as efficient as possible, to minimize our carbon footprint, and to find new ways to turn our waste into resources and useful co-products. For us, it’s always been about creating a circular economy — the environment, agriculture, customers, and communities.”

Changing the game with technology

BIOX Corporation is another pioneer in the biofuels industry. Founded in 2000, the company started with two people who raised private capital to build a pilot biodiesel plant in Southwestern Ontario at a time when no biodiesel industry existed in Canada.

BIOX developed new pilot technology that could convert biomass feedstocks traditionally thought of as waste, like animal fats and used cooking oils, into biodiesel. In its early days, the company found a new method for converting feedstock into biodiesel and condensed this process, making the duration less than an hour, in comparison to the traditional processes which can take days.

“What made our technology unique is that we found a way to circumvent the significant temperature, pressure, and time that making the biodiesel had traditionally taken,” says Scott Lewis, Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations and Strategy at BIOX. “Plus, the technology increased the yields we could get out of these lower grade feedstocks.”

Fast forward to today, BIOX is now operating under the World Energy Banner and has six biodiesel and one renewable diesel production plants across North America. It continues to harness technology and private investment to grow.

A welcome boost to the local economy

Another biofuels success story is Aylmer, ON-based IGPC Ethanol. In 2007, a group of locals from the farming community created IGPC when they saw an opportunity to help grow the biofuels industry in Southwestern Ontario using the abundance of local natural resources.

These farmers cared not only about the environment, but also about the local economy. “When our plant was built, Southwestern Ontario had been hit very hard by the downturn in the economy,” says Jim Grey, President and CEO of IGPC Ethanol. “Our plant is now in what was the heart of car manufacturing. At the time, unemployment was high — our facility was a great economic boost to the surrounding area.”

He explains that IGPC has continued to grow since 2007. It recently made an approximately $120 million investment that will double its production capacity. “This expansion is another example where we’re seeing spillover economic benefits for the whole area from our ethanol production.”

Stronger together

These are three distinct companies all with the common goal of helping the environment in a way that allows their businesses and local communities to thrive.

“On the surface, we may seem like competitor companies,” says Lewis. “But I really believe in that proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”

Renewable Industries Canada (RICanada) is a business coalition representing frontrunners in biofuels and clean technology. “Companies with a head for business and innovation at their heart, invested for the long-haul — that’s the tie that binds us together,” says Andrea Kent, the past President of RICanada. “Environmental policy should be about opportunities to grow and do better, be more efficient, and deliver on solutions that will really work. We’d like governments to think of us as helpful ‘problem solvers.’ Our businesses prove you can reduce carbon footprints while growing operations — it’s an expertise that can apply to public policy as well.”

RICanada knows that biofuels are a win for the environment and industry — they burn cleaner than fossil fuels and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 122 percent. Canada’s domestic biofuels industry contributes $3.5 billion to the Canadian economy each year. Since 2007, it’s created approximately 14,000 direct and indirect jobs and generates more than 1,000 jobs annually.

“The true beauty of biofuels is that they offer an immediate climate solution that we know can work across the fuel economy — from refiners, producers, suppliers, retailers, all the way to consumers,” Kent says.

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Not So Crude

Every biodiesel plant produces a by-product called glycerin. In 2012, BIOX decided to get the most out of this low-value by-product by investing in technology to upgrade its glycerin from crude to a technical grade of >98 percent purity instead of 80 percent. This allowed the company to start selling the higher-quality glycerin as a replacement for industrial petrochemicals to make, for example, bio-based paint or de-icing fluid for planes. “Crude glycerin mainly goes into animal feed and is a carbon cost or needed to be upgraded by third parties,” says Lewis. “When you upgrade it to replace traditional petrochemicals instead of animal feed or low-grade fuels, it contributes to lower the carbon intensity value of the biodiesel.”

First of Its Kind

Distillers’ grain is a natural co-product of ethanol. It’s the left-over part of the corn kernel that can be used as animal feed and sold back to local farmers. In 2014, IGPC was the first company in the world to implement a new technology called Fiber Separation Technology ™, which helps get the most out of the corn kernel by producing high-protein distillers’ grain that is particularly valuable in the meat and dairy industries. “This new technology is a win-win,” says Grey. “It makes the distillers’ grain more valuable as feedstock, but also ferments additional starch so it can enhance yields and increase ethanol production.”

Truly Green

During the fermentation process, ethanol plants produce biogenic carbon dioxide and a steady flow of waste heat. Greenfield and Truly Green Farms, a local greenhouse, saw this waste as an opportunity. “The $10 million investment into a new heat and carbon dioxide recovery system sends our plant’s waste heat and CO2 to the greenhouse,” says Field. “It’s allowed Truly Green Farms to cut its greenhouse energy costs in half. There’s nothing else like it in North America.”