Experts weigh the pros and cons of renewable diesel in the North

A Saskatchewan researcher who specializes in fossil fuels and energy transitions says she understands why renewable diesel is an attractive alternative in the North — but she's not sold on the idea that it's the best way to reduce overall emissions.

"I think the total carbon footprint of renewable diesel is a bit unclear," said Emily Eaton, a geography and environmental studies professor at the University of Regina. She wonders if its production has "hidden greenhouse gas emissions" that aren't accounted for.

Made from vegetable oils and fats, renewable diesel is chemically the same as conventional diesel and can be used in any type of existing diesel engine.

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan suggested last week it could be a "game-changer" for the North, and urged the N.W.T. government to work with the Yukon to find some for a pilot project.  She said the cost per tonne of reduced emissions from renewable diesel is two to eight times lower than other renewable projects the territory is working on — like solar and wind.

A market snapshot of Canada's budding renewable diesel industry said as of 2023, there were seven refineries planned or under construction around the country. One of the main drivers of the development, it said, were clean-fuel regulations set in 2020 aimed at reducing emissions.

Canada Energy Regulator published a market snapshot of the the country's renewable diesel industry in 2023. This map, which comes from that snapshot, shows seven refineries that were either open or under construction at the time.
Canada Energy Regulator published a market snapshot of the country's renewable diesel industry in 2023. This map, which comes from that snapshot, shows 7 refineries that were either open or under construction at the time. (Canada Energy Regulator)

But Eaton said renewable diesel is "for the most part" refined in the U.S. and Singapore. Importing the end product, growing the crops to make it, and the refining process all generate emissions too, she said.

Instead, she considers electrification to be the "best practice" for the energy transition in Canada.

Lachlan MacLean, a practicing mechanical engineer and member of the Yellowknife-based social justice non-profit Alternatives North, disagrees. He believes renewable diesel is one of the North's best options for reducing emissions, though he agrees it's crucial to ask questions about where a product comes from and how many emissions might be associated with its entire lifecycle.

And for that, he has an answer.

"You would want to get a certificate of carbon intensity [that] comes from a trusted assessment firm that is going to be looking at these lifecycle … emissions," he said. Carbon intensity is a measure of how carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are associated with an activity.

MacLean said renewable diesel products have a variety of different carbon intensities, and it would be important to pick a product that meets the territory's goals.

No big new infrastructure needed for renewable diesel

MacLean believes the N.W.T. should be focused on renewable diesel because it can be used to address a huge amount of the territory's emissions. Right now, conventional diesel is widely used in the territory as heating oil, transportation fuel or for remote power generation.

Renewable diesel can also reduce overall emissions as soon as the fuel is used — helpful, as the territory inches closer to a 2030 reduction target that remains out of line with the federal government's targets.

A lot of alternative technologies — including electrification in small communities — require the territory to build big pieces of infrastructure which would cost a lot of money and would take years, said MacLean.

Although renewable diesel is also more expensive than conventional diesel, MacLean agrees with MLA Morgan about it being a more cost-effective solution for reducing emissions. He also pointed to California as an "incredibly successful" example of how policy can be developed so those costs aren't immediately shouldered by consumers.

California has a clean-fuel regulation that gives low-carbon fuel producers credits which are, in turn, purchased by fossil fuel producers, said MacLean. That means companies making low-carbon fuel can offer their product to consumers for the same price as conventional oil and still make money.

MacLean cautioned, however, that renewable diesel isn't a silver bullet for everyone.

"It's unfortunate that people don't take a more regional lens to these things, because it makes a difference. The devil is always in the details," he said.