The Biorefinery Project of the Future – Part 9 of 10 – add solar, wind, other renewables

October 4, 2010 |

In part IX of our series, we look at adding other renewables technologies to our project and our community of growers and customers, such as solar, wind or geothermal. Different geographies have different opportunities in other renewables, but we will be pursuing maximum advantage of the resources we have built up, and the land available to use through our processing plant and in the community we sustain.

The Backstory.

In part I of our series, we outlined the beginnings of the Bioenergy Project of the Future, based on dozens of interviews on the future of technology, policy, rural communities, finance, and the demand for bio-based products and renewable fuels.

We outlined three principles for development:  First do no harm. Less is more. Add ingredients slowly and stir.

In Part I, the product goal is to make and distribute ethanol (butanol is fine too) or biodiesel through the acquisition or construction of a first-generation ethanol (or biobutanol) plant.  We not only have to demonstrate technological prowess in bioprocessing, we have to demonstrate financial and management acumen to all our stakeholders – the community, policymakers, lenders, and customers. As well as to begin to establish that eco-system of relationships in our community that will serve us later on, when we add-on riskier and more advanced second-generation features.

In Part II, the Bioenergy Project of the Future began a graduated series of bolt-ons, beginning with the collection of cellulosic biomass. No, we won’t aren’t adding the capacity to convert that into fuels just yet. That would be getting ahead of ourselves. First, we have to demonstrate that we can build a sustainable ecosystem around the harvest and delivery of biomass.

Part III, Add renewable chemicals. If we have learned anything from the stories of hot companies like Amyris, LS9, Gevo, Solazyme, ZeaChem, Algenol, or Cobalt Technologies, as well as exciting pure-plays like Segetis, Elevance, GlycosBio or Rivertop Renewables, it is the importance of producing chemicals or other bio-based materials first to generate revenues, before taking the company further down the cost curve and up in scale in order to make competitively-priced renewable fuels.

Part IV, adding renewable fuels. No longer are we producing advanced biofuels “because we can”, as a demonstration of technology. We are demonstrating the power of our network of relationships in the community, and the power of our growing balance sheet. Now that capacity expands and we begin to saturate some of the market we developed in high-value organic acids, we turn to the fuel market with a capacity expansion effort.

Part V, adding algae. We started to add even more exotic technologies when we look at algae-based options, and other CO2 munching technologies that will help us create renewable fuels from the CO2 we are producing as a byproduct, adding economic strength as well as reducing our carbon footprint.

Part VI, add bioammonia. In our Bioenergy Project of the Future, our goals continue to be not only to increase income, but the sustainability of the project and the carbon impact of our community. Within our slipstream of corn or sugarcane feedstocks, one of the quick wins in terms of producing income while reducing carbon intensity is to add a bioammonia production capability.

Part VII, add clean diesel. We look at the addition of clean, renewable diesel fuels, as produced by the magic bugs of the type developed by Amyris or LS9 – or utilizing the catalytic bio-forming process under development at Virent. Our goal: the production of even more diesel fuel to replace the fossil-fuels utilized in the farming practices of our community of growers.

Part VIII, add other low cost feedstocks. Our pursuit of lower carbon, has given us a platform of feedstock flexibility and we can look at introducing some feedstocks into our process based on the lowest possible cost, rather than on a difficult-to-achieve blend of low cost, low carbon, and high yield.It may well be that we use our growing balance sheet to introduce a concentrating solar thermal technology, that will supplement the power we generate from our biomass that provides electricity for our system. In so doing, we release biomass for cellulosic conversion, boosting yields and reducing per-gallon costs of fuel.

Opportunities in solar

For an example of the opportunities in combining solar and bioenergy, Sundrop Fuels has developed a solar-driven gasification technology turns any plant material into synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that is made into drop-in “green” gasoline, diesel or aviation fuel using well-established commercial processes.

Their process is similar to conventional biomass gasification except for one major difference: We use concentrated solar energy to generate the immense heat needed to create the syngas. Concentrated solar power from mirrors on the ground is directed into the thermo chemical reactor, which sits atop a 500-foot tower. Finely ground biomass is delivered by pneumatic tube into a feeder unit above the reactor, then feedstock is dropped into the processing tank, where temperatures of over 1,300°C gasify the material. The result? A significant gain in operating efficiency compared to plants that use non-renewables or biomass combustion itself to supply process heat.

Opportunities in wind energy

The opportunities extend beyond solar, to wind as well. Last year in Michigan, Full Circle Developments proposed a combined ethanol and wind energy project on a 90-acre brownfield site. According to MLive’s report on the project and its backers: “wind power offsets the biggest financial obstacle that has made wood-to-ethanol production economically impractical: the high cost of the electricity.”

Opportunities in geothermal energy

In locations where solar insolation rates or wind curves are not sufficiently productive to justify use of those renewables, geothermal opportunities may exist. GeneSyst International has developed a Gravity Pressure Vessel (GPV), harnessing the natural geologic forces of the earth, pressure and heat, to regenerate biomass from waste to ethanol energy and other useful products. In England, Maltings Organic Treatment and AqueGen are progressing on a $65 million waste-to-ethanol project in York that will be fully operational in 2011 with a capacity of 26 Mgy, realizing a yield of 63 gallons per dry ton of biomass. The company is using gravity pressure vessel technology, similar to that employed by Agresti Biofuels in the US and Asia. In the gravity pressure vessel system, natural forces gravity and underground heat are used to convert waste into sugars, which are then fermented into ethanol or butanol.

Projects can be integrated, as in these examples. But also, there are opportunities to co-locate projects, taking advantage of unused land in our Bioenergy Project of the Future to add power generation through solar, wind or geothermal. According to Harris Group, as much as two-thirds of the cost of a renewables project can come from the infrastructure needed to support the core technology, It makes sense to explore opportunities to co-locate for utility line infrastructure, as well as develop solar, wind or geothermal opportunities where existing biomass and biofuels permits have already been obtained.

In the US state of Iowa, companies such as MidAmerican Energy have also pursued the addition of wind energy on existing corn and soy cropland.

Opportunities in blue energy – tidal, wave or riverflow

Another opportunity lies in blue energy, the extraction of power from tidal, river or ocean wave forces. In New Zealand, Aquaflow Bionomic has developed algae harvesting technologies, to which could be added technologies to capture river energy. Early-stage projects aimed at capturing wave energy in the Gulf of Mexico have looked to add marine algal growth and harvesting capabilities in order to improve the overall system economics.

Energy, and the community it serves

In the Bioenergy project of the future, we have added each step incrementally, looking at the opportunities in the land and measuring those opportunities against price environments and the costs of the technologies? Our goal: to consistently, incrementally, add sustainability, reduce carbon, and add income streams for our project and the community it serves. Let us repeat that last part again: and the community it serves.

For the most powerful fact we we have discovered about sustainable energy projects is that it must make sense to the community it serves, not just the project developers, or its financial backers, or to policy-makers or NGOs working in bubbles around the various national capitals. Projects that sustain communities are far likelier to generate policy stability and the long-term contracting for feedstock that assures project survival in upside-down markets.

In Part X of our series, we look at “Bringing it all Together: How do I get it done, make it happen?” by outlining the practical steps with which the developers of a Bioenergy Project of the Future assemble the coalition of supporters that make projects feasible. Developers, financiers, policymakers, and the community itself that the projects serve. All are important, and relationships are, in fact, all-important. We’ll look at practices tomorrow that work.

The complete Bioenergy Project of the Future series

PART IX – Adding other renewables is here..
PART VIII – Adding lowest-cost feedstocks is here..
PART VII – Adding cellulosic diesel is here..
PART VI – Adding bioammonia is here..
PART V – Adding algal fuels is here..
PART IV – Adding cellulosic biofuels is here.
PART III – Adding renewable chemicals – is here.
PART II – Adding cellulosic  biomass is here.
PART I of the series – Ethanol as a Base is here.

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