Earth to Cellulosic ethanol: Glad you’re here, buddy, what took so long?

October 9, 2014 |

Cellulosic ethanol arrives at scale — “The five years away forever” put to rest — but are there troubling waters still ahead? For whom, and why?

Part I of II

Part II of our story is here.

There’s a gigantic disconnect between two sections in the country as to whether the United States should be celebrating the success or the failure of cellulosic biofuels — biofuels made from crop residues, energy crops, and other feedstocks including municipal solid waste, and which feature a 60 percent or greater full-lifecycle reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional gasoline.

The supporters

On the one hand are the supporters — including project developers, growers, the US Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, several foreign governments (particularly in the EU) and supporters of renewable fuels.

They point to the growing number of commercial-scale biorefineries, and the reaching of cost-competitiveness with $100 oil, as signature achievements of the renewable fuels movement.

Many of the supporters will be gathered in Hugoton, Kansas next week for the official opening of Abengoa Bioenergy’s commercial-scale cellulosic biorefinery, which at 25 millions gallons of capacity will (for a period of a few months) be the world’s largest of its type.

Typical of supporter enthusiasm is this report from the Department of Energy:

In September 2012, conversion technologies were demonstrated at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory…where scientists led pilot-scale projects for two cellulosic ethanol production processes: biochemical conversion and thermochemical conversion. Both…demonstrated process yield and operating cost…At the biochemical pilot plant, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.15 per gallon—a process that was approximately $9 per gallon just a decade ago. For the thermochemical pilot plant, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.05 per gallon.

Beta Renewables

The detractors

On the other hand are ranged a number of detractors — oil companies, some environmentalists, skeptics of government R&D for renewables, and mandate-hating conservatives.

Typical of their critique is a report from Jonathan Fahey of the Associated Press that ran last November:

“As refineries churn out this so-called cellulosic fuel, it has become clear, even to the industry’s allies, that the benefits remain, as ever, years away…The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol…Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn’t emerged as a replacement…Cellulosic makers are expected to turn out at most 6 million gallons of fuel this year, the government says. That’s enough fuel to meet U.S. demand for 11 minutes…Corn ethanol…has limited environmental benefits and some drastic side effects…Despite the mandate and government subsidies, cellulosic fuels haven’t performed. This year will be the fourth in a row the biofuels industry failed by large margins to meet required targets for cellulosic biofuels….

“The Obama administration’s annual estimates of cellulosic fuel production have proven wildly inaccurate…supporters acknowledge there is almost no chance to meet the law’s original yearly targets that top out at 16 billion gallons by 2022…expectations were simply set too high. To attract support from Washington and money from investors, the industry underestimated and understated the difficulty of turning cellulose into fuel…

Fahey continues, “The industry was also dealt a setback by the global financial crisis, which all but stopped commercial lending soon after the biofuel mandates were established in 2007…Hundreds of companies failed that had attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists and government financing.”

You’ve come a long ways, baby

Part of the excitement around competitive-cost cellulosic biofuels is the magnitude of the effort and the achievement. Just a few years ago, the projected cost per gallon was $9.00. Just a few years ago, a kilogram was a tough quantity to find produced in the United States.

A problem of targets and language

One of the biggest confusions over the Renewable Fuel Standard is the language of the “cellulosic mandate”. It’s not much of a mandate, at the end of the day. Congress set a maximum target of 21 billion gallons of advanced (that is, no-corn ethanol) fuel by 2022, which included biodiesel, all other forms of advanced fuels that EPA qualified, and cellulosic fuels.

DuPont's Nevada cellulosic biofuels plant, as of August. The core technology and fermenter units can be seen at center; at left center, biomass intake; at left, storage and distillation

DuPont’s Nevada cellulosic biofuels plant, as of earlier this year. The core technology and fermenter units can be seen at center; at left center, biomass intake; at left, storage and distillation

The maximum target for cellulosic was 16 billion gallons by 2022 — but it was specifically tied back to actual capacity levels, given that the fuel was, in 2007, only available in labs. EPA was required to reset the mandate each year to actual production volumes.

In other words, no production, no mandate. It’s not exactly right to say that the Congress “mandated” the blending of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels in 2022. It is true to say that Congress intended to mandate that, if the industry produced the volumes, Congress would require obligated parties (such as oil refiners and marketers) to blend the (competing) fuels into their petroleum fuels, or pay for waiver credits. Which is to say, if the detractors could come up with some way of frightening the heck out of investors and otherwise frustrate efforts to build capacity, the mandate would disappear.

Imagine an EPA mandate that says, in effect, “we mandate lower levels of arsenic and mercury in groundwater if someone comes up with a product to substitute for the one causing the arsenic and mercury problem. If no one produces a substitute, you can go on polluting.” Well, imagine the galvanizing impact on polluters. They could take the hard road of developing cost-effective alternatives, or the easier road of demonizing all the substitutes and thereby keeping them out of the market.

The Projection Problem

POET-DSM's Project LIBERTY under construction last winter. The project opened to great fanfare this summer.

POET-DSM’s Project LIBERTY under construction last winter. The project opened to great fanfare this summer.

One of the difficulties relates back to the difference between capacity and production. What happens if someone builds a 10 million gallon integrated biorefinery that can make fuels or chemicals — and market conditions change radically mid-year to make either fuels or chemicals wildly more profitable or unprofitable?

A normal industrial response to changing commodity demand is to alter production – shift to a higher-value market, and tune up or down the volumes. At some times, it makes sense to idle or limit a plant’s production capacity — and definitely, industry will make $5 chemicals over $3 fuels every time, if the input costs are the same.

INEOS Bio New Planet Energy's 8 million gallon cellulosic ethanol plant in Vero Beach, FL — also producing a healthy stream of renewable power.

INEOS Bio New Planet Energy’s 8 million gallon cellulosic ethanol plant in Vero Beach, FL — also producing a healthy stream of renewable power.

Another problem. When is a plant market-ready, as opposed to mechanically complete? No plant operates at full capacity until it has gone through a commissioning period — and that can range from moths to several years as bottlenecks in a design are worked out.

Take for example Gevo. It has four production lines, which can a) produce ethanol b) produce isobutanol for the fuel markets c) produce isobutanol for the chemical markets or d) be idled individually or in total because of input/output commodity price imbalances, commissioning troubles, or technology upgrades.

Cópia de GranBio_1_Crédito_Divulgação

The 21.6 million gallon per year GranBio project which just opened in Alagoas, Brazil.

So, EPA has the tricky job of projecting production volumes, as opposed to “mechanically-complete production capacity”. In the short-term, it will have troubles projecting production volumes from new plants that may intend to be in full production with, say, 6 months, but encounter more bottlenecks than expected. In the long-term, it has the problem of deciding how much fuel will be made for a domestic market, how much may be exported, and how much production capacity might be devoted to making higher-value specialty chemicals.

Industry’s optimistic timelines

The cellulosic fuels movement and industry probably didn’t help itself much back in 2007 when the first commercial-scale DOE grants were awarded to six projects.

The project and promise. “Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas LLC received $76 million for a proposed plant in Colwich, Kan. The facility will thermochemically and biochemically produce 11.4 MMgy of ethanol from 700 tons per day of corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble, switchgrass and other feedstocks. The project is expected to start construction in late 2008. Abengoa is also building a pilot-scale cellulose facility in York, Neb.”

The actual outcome. The project grew to 25 million gallons, shifted to Hugoton, Kansas from Colwich — and is opening this year after starting construction in late 2011.

The project and promise. “ALICO Inc. received $33 million for a 13.9 MMgy project in LaBelle, Fla. The project is also proposed to produce electric power, hydrogen and ammonia from 770 tons per day of yard, wood and vegetative wastes. Construction is slated to begin in 2008 with start-up in 2010.”

The actual outcome. ALICO backed out, their partners New Planet Energy stayed in and ultimately partnered with INEOS Bio. The partners shifted the project to 8 million gallons of ethanol and 4MW of renewable power in Vero Beach, FL, started construction in 2011, completed in 2012. The project remains in a commissioning period — which may possibly finish up by year end when equipment upgrading is complete.

The project and promise. “BlueFire Ethanol Inc. received up to $40 million for a proposed facility in southern California. The facility will be sited on an existing landfill and produce about 19 MMgy of ethanol from 700 tons per day of sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills. Construction is slated to begin in 2008.”

The actual outcome. The company (now known as Bluefire Renewables) has struggled to complete financing, and is still intending to build but has not yet commenced construction although site-prep work has been done and designs are in place. Ultimately, BlueFire shifted the project to Natchez, Mississippi and attracted a total of $87 million in grants when this project was re-awarded out of Recovery Act funds.

The project and promise. “Broin Companies received up to $80 million for its Project Liberty proposal. The company plans to add cellulosic ethanol production to its existing corn dry mill in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Construction is expected to begin later this year.” At the time Ethanol Producer observed, “The company plans to convert the company’s existing 50 MMgy Emmetsburg, Iowa, corn dry mill plant to also handle cellulosic feedstocks, mainly corn stover. The expansion is slated to take approximately 30 months and increase the facility’s capacity to 125 MMgy of ethanol.”

The actual outcome. The company, now known as POET, formed POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels in a JV with DSM, and opened the 20 million gallon Project Liberty this year in Emmetsburg,

The project and promise. “Iogen Biorefinery Partners received up to $80 million to build its proposed 18 MMgy facility in Shelley, Idaho. Iogen already operates a demonstration-scale wheat straw-to-ethanol facility in Canada.”

The actual outcome. The company ultimately abandoned the project. Using Iogen’s technology, the  Shell-Cosan JV Raizen broke ground last November on a $100 million, 10 million gallon first commercial facility in Piricicaba, Brazil. It’s expected to open by the end of this year.

The project and promise. Range Fuels was awarded up to $76 million for a proposed project near Soperton, Ga. The 40 MMgy ethanol plant would also produce 9 MMgy of methanol from 1,200 tons per day of wood residues and wood-based energy crops. Construction on the Khosla Ventures-backed project is expected to begin this year.

The actual outcome. The company and project ultimately failed, and the site was sold to LanzaTech, which maintains a pilot facility there to this day — although LanzaTech is focused at this point on developing its first commercial-scale capacity in China.

Some unexpected big wins along the way

The project and promise. Beta Renewables was not formed in time to compete for the 2007 DOE grants, or the round of grants announced under the Recovery Act in late 2009. Chemtex was developing a technology at the time, and ultimately formed Beta with investors Texas Pacific Group and Novozymes.

The actual outcome. The company opened a 20 million gallon commercial-scale facility in Crescentino, Italy in 2012, which is now operating at full capacity. The company has signed firm deals for new plants in China and Slovakia, and is developing a project on its own balance sheet for North Carolina. More licenses are expected over the next 12 months.

The project and promise. GranBio was not formed in time to compete for the 2007 DOE grants, or the round of grants announced under the Recovery Act in late 2009.

The actual outcome. The company opened a 21.6 million gallon commercial-scale facility in Alagoas state in Brazil this past month, which is currently the world’s largest. The company has announced plans to invest $724.5 million in five cellulosic ethanol plants during the next few years.

The project and promise. DuPont Industrial Biosciences (operating than as the JV DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol) either did not compete or did not win a 2007 DOE grant, or in the round of grants announced under the Recovery Act in late 2009.

The actual outcome. The company is expected to open what will become the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol facility in the world when its 30 million gallon, $200M Nevada, Iowa plant is completed by the end of December.

The project and promise. Enerkem’s Edmonton project was not legible for a DOE grant because it is in Canada — but it did pick up a grant for a future project in Pontotoc, Mississippi.

The actual outcome. The company just opened its first commercial 10 million gallon facility — which owing to trends in commodity prices, is currently producing methanol instead of ethanol. All of it, though, from Edmonton’s supply of municipal solid waste.

The tale of the tape

Six commercial-scale projects were originally envisioned by the DOE in 2007. Ultimately, we have four open, one more this week, two more by the end of the year, four in development, and ultimately a whole generation of new technology competitors with at-scale capabliities. One failed.

The timelines were not pretty. We’re seeing the real wave hit the beach in 2014, something like 5 years late.

Were the targets “juiced”?

According to a Digest source employed in a senior role at Iogen during 2007, when the EISA Act established the cellulosic targets:

“There was no way those targets were going to get met. We were the only company at the time that had reached demonstration scale, and we did not believe that we would be ready with a first commercial facility by that timetable. Knowing how long it takes to get to pilot and demonstration scale, a first commercial and then a fleet of new plants.

“Most experts agreed that we need until the mid-decade to really start ramping up capacity. And this was before the 2008-09 financial crisis and other factors causing slowdowns. We told everyone this, and originally the timetables and targets were much more conservative. But one prominent investor in the sector was far more bullish, called the more conservative targets “a joke”, and at some stage Congress became convinced that a more aggressive timetable was the right way to go.”

[Editor’s note: The DOE timetables for first commercials in the 2007 grants indicated that 159 million gallons in capacity would have reached mechanical completion by 2010, with Iogen’s 18 million gallons coming on-line after that — but only if all projects were financed and all were successful technologically. At the time, one of the six had reached demonstration-scale, and another one or two had reached pilot-scale. It is virtually impossible to imagine how the projects would have reached steady-state operations in 2011 without skipping a minimum-scale full demonstration step altogether. The absence of a proven demonstration at scale of the technologies would prove to be, in some cases — fatal to projects which proceeding to jump to scale prematurely — and a delaying factor in financing for the rest.]

How realistic were the targets and timelines given the state of technical readiness?

It’s easy to answer this one. Given the outcomes, the projects were real, the timelines were not.

For example, POET’s 2007 projections indicated a construction start in 2007 and and opening as soon as 2010. But the company only reached pilot-scale at Scotland, South Dakota in the 4th quarter of 2008 and began producing cellulosic ethanol in Q1 2009. Commercial biomass harvesting began in Q3 2010.

Now, realistic timelines and realistic projects are two different things. The United State originally hoped to invade France in 1943, 19 months after Pearl Harbor, and ended up staging Operation Overlord in June 1944, 12 months and 63% later than the original targets. The winning of the war was vastly more important than the timeline. And in the case of POET-DSM — the opening of the plant in 2014 is proof that the journey had a successful ending.

Which brings us to the problem of financing. And we cover that in Part II of our story is here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Top Stories

Comments are closed.