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Ontario doubles down on ethanol to help save the planet


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, December 4, 2017, 7:51 PM - Are a couple of more trips to the gas pump a year worth it, if it helps to save us from ourselves? The Ontario government's new proposal to double ethanol content in gasoline may be one of the quickest and easiest ways for us to help stave off the worse effects from climate change.

Blending ethanol into gasoline has been going on for years now, as a way to substantially reducing the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted by transportation, which accounts for up to one-quarter of GHG emissions in Canada.

Across Canada, gasoline sold commercially has a minimum 5 per cent ethanol content, based on rules set down by the Federal Government. Some provinces, such as Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have matching regulations, set at 5 per cent minimum ethanol, while Saskatchewan requires 7.5 per cent, minimum, and Manitoba mandates that it be 8.5 per cent.

A new amendment to Ontario's rules proposed last week by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, would put Ontario's requirements at the top, doubling it from 5 per cent ethanol to 10 per cent, for regular grade gasoline, by 2020.

"Increasing ethanol content in gasoline is a very significant step forward in helping us meet our targets," Chris Ballard, Ontario's minister of the Environment and Climate Change, said in an interview with CBC News. "We're trying to drive down what's coming out of people's tail pipes in terms of carbon content."

According to what Ballard told CBC News, this would represent the same reduction in GHG emissions as taking 130,000 vehicles off the road each year.


What is Ethanol?

• Ethanol is a renewable biofuel, derived from crops such as corn and wheat, or processed from food waste, grasses, wood or algae
• These resources are processed into high-octane, water-free alcohol, which is then blended into gasoline
• Ethanol contains less energy by volume than gasoline, but burns more completely and cleanly compared to gasoline
• Ethanol-gasoline blends substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to pure gasoline 
• All vehicles manufactured since 1980 are equipped to use 10 per cent ethanol blend gasoline


The proposed amendment to the province's regulations will also provide better incentives for both biofuel and biodiesel technologies and innovation, and it calls for the ethanol used in gasoline to emit at least 35 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, over the entire life-cycle of the product, compared to pure gasoline. This life-cycle analysis includes the growth of the biomass that goes into making the ethanol, as the plants absorb and store carbon dioxide, as well as the harvesting, transport and processing of the grain, and the final transport and combustion of the fuel produced from it.

The proposal includes a cost assessment that gas prices in the province could increase by around 0.3 cents per litre under the amended rule, based on current projections of ethanol and carbon prices, and "if any compliance costs ... are fully passed on to consumers." The authors anticipate, however, that prices will remain the same, based on similar policies implemented in other provinces.

One way that costs will most certainly increase, however, is with the number of times that Ontarians will be filling up at the pumps by 2020.

According to Natural Resources Canada, 10 per cent ethanol blend gasoline contains around 97 per cent of the energy content of pure gasoline. Since ethanol blends burns more efficiently, though, the overall fuel consumption increase from using this ethanol blend gasoline is only 2 per cent compared to gasoline.

For someone who fills up the tank once a week, this translates to 1 or 2 extra fill-ups needed per year, compared to filling up with pure gasoline. Taking into account that regular grade gasoline sold in Ontario already has an average of 5 per cent ethanol content throughout the year, this doubling of ethanol in gasoline really only becomes 1 extra fill-up per year.

By comparison, driving at 120 km/h rather than 100 km/h increases fuel consumption by an average of 20 per cent, according to NRC. For the same person filling up the tank every week, that results in 8 or 9 extra trips to the pump each year.

So, overall, even though a doubling of ethanol content would translate into an extra stop to refuel each year, for the average commuter, that extra cost could easily be offset simply by taking a few minutes longer to reach our destination.

Sources: CBC | Natural Resources Canada | Ontario Government

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