10 Biggest Bioeconomy Blockbuster Stories of 2014 (Americas)

December 22, 2014 |

top-10POET-DSM, Abengoa, Enerkem, GranBio, Raizen plant openings lead the list; REG’s M&A campaign, EPA’s RFS debacle, are other key trends.

They said that cellulosic fuels were “five years away, and always will be,” but five major commercial-scale plant openings in the Americas put that label permanently to rest this year, and it was without question the story of the year. First up was GranBio in Alagoas state, Brazil, then Enerkem in Alberta, POET-DSM in Iowa, Abengoa in Kansas and closing out the year was the (Raizen) Iogen Energy project in Sao Paulo state, Brazil.

Here are the Top 10 developments of the year.

1. Abengoa, POET-DSM, GranBio, Iogen Energy, Enerkem openings

Enerkem. In June, Enerkem officially inaugurated its first full-scale municipal waste-to-biofuels and chemicals facility in Edmonton, Alberta. This facility, operated by Enerkem Alberta Biofuels, is among the world’s first commercial facilities to be built for the production of renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels. During its construction, more than 600 direct and indirect jobs were created for the modular manufacturing of the facility’s systems and their on-site assembly.

As Enerkem CEO Vincent Chornet said in Edmonton yesterday, “This is the beginning of a great journey for Enerkem, for Edmonton and the world.”

POET-DSM.Once, we all lived off the land, sun, wind and water and it provided everything we needed,” said DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma, surveying a crowd of more than 2,000 crowding a biomass storage facility in Emmetsburg, Iowa —  converted temporarily into the world capital of advanced biofuels. “Then came our historic shift to a dependence on, and an addiction to, fossil fuel resources.” And so, the September opening of the POET-DSM plant was underway, complete with a light show, royalty, corporate chieftains, a cabinet secretary, a former NATO commander, and a governor. It was billed as a “grand opening” and biofuels has never had a grander stage.

It’s a traditional corn ethanol plant with a cellulosic bolt-on, that boosts overall capacity by 20 percent. Known as Project LIBERTY, it will produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel per year – later ramping up to 25 million gallons – from corn cobs, leaves, husk and some stalk.

GranBio. In September, GranBio initiated production at the first commercial-scale plant for second-generation ethanol in the Southern Hemisphere.  The Bioflex 1, unit built in São Miguel dos Campos, Alagoas, has an initial production capacity of 82 million liters of ethanol per year (21.6 million US gallons)

GranBio invested US$190 million to build the plant and US$75 million on the steam and electricity co-generation system, the latter investment along with the Carlos Lyra Group’s Caeté facility.   The 2G ethanol makes it possible to increase Brazilian production capacity per acre by 50% using agricultural waste – straw and bagasse, without need of expanding the cane fields.  GranBio developed a system to harvest, store and process 400,000 metric tons of straw per year for Bioflex 1, which places it among the world’s largest and most competitive.

Abengoa. In October, Abengoa Bioenergy officially opened the world’s largest cellulosic biorefinery in Hugoton, Kansas surrounded by dignitaries such as US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas senior Senator Pat Roberts, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson among many others.

The refinery’s nameplate capacity makes it, for the time being, the world’s largest cellulosic biofuels facility, topping the 21 million gallon capacity of the GranBio facility in Alagoas, Brasil. The plant is expected to hold the “world’s largest” title until the DuPont first commercial plant opens in Nevada, Iowa early in the new year.

Iogen Energy. In December, Iogen and Raízen announced they had begun production of cellulosic ethanol on schedule at Raízen`s newly expanded Costa Pinto sugar cane mill in Piracicaba, São Paulo, Brazil.

Raízen broke ground on the $US100 million “biomass-to-ethanol” expansion just over one year ago. The new facility will convert biomass such as sugar cane bagasse and straw into 40 million litres per year of advanced, second generation cellulosic biofuel. It will also be the first large-scale commercial implementation of Iogen Energy’s cellulosic ethanol technology, which the company developed and has extensively proven in its Ottawa demonstration facility.

2. The rollercoaster of oil prices

In the early part of the year, as oil prices remained high, we were looking intently at advanced biofuels projects at less than $100 a barrel; but by year-end, oil prices had crashed to around $60 and companies were issuing “still going forward” messaging as stakeholders pondered the end of the universe.

We looked at the upside in $60 oil here, and saw Boom times for two-product strategies, with feed markets offering relief for the challenges on the fuel side. While over in the world of oil , we saw layoffs and assets sales announced, capex budgets slashed and rising gasoline sales. Low prices have stimulated a modest but trackable rise in consumption, despite increases in vehicle fuel economy.

But only a few short months ago the story was not about prices crashing through the floor, but rather the ceiling. In the Unconventional Truth we observed that the IEA was projecting $128 per barrel (in constant dollar) prices for crude oil and equivalents — and outlined a 17% increase in oil demand between 2012 and 2035, or 15 million barrels per day. That’s more than twice the entire US energy production in 2012.

3. EPA’s RFS debacle

Last month, the U.S. EPA announced it is delaying finalization of the long-awaited 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard Renewable Volume Obligations until 2015.

The proposed 2014 rule ran into a steamroller of opposition from renewable fuel groups, who said the proposed rule substantially cutting biofuels targets “pulled the rug” from underneath billions of dollars investment made in reliance upon targets.

The Agency said: “On November 29, 2013, EPA published a notice of proposed rulemaking to establish the 2014 RFS standards. The proposal has generated significant comment and controversy. EPA has been evaluating these issues…[and] finalization of the 2014 standards rule has been significantly delayed. Due to this delay, and given ongoing consideration of the issues presented by the commenters, EPA is not in a position to finalize the 2014 RFS standards rule before the end of the year. Accordingly, we intend to take action on the 2014 standards rule in 2015 prior to or in conjunction with action on the 2015 standards rule.

4. Verdezyne, LanzaTech, Cool Planet tee it up with monster cap raises

Verdezyne. In April, Verdezyne completed key terms for an investment of $48 million led by Malaysian multinational conglomerate, Sime Darby Berhad. The initiative was launched in a ceremony on Monday, April 28, at the Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attended by United States President Barack Obama, Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak, Verdezyne President and CEO E. William Radany, Ph.D., and Sime Darby Berhad President and Group Chief Executive, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Mohd Bakke Salleh.

Led by Sime Darby, this $48 million financing for Verdezyne was joined by existing investors BP Alternative Energy Ventures, DSM Venturing B.V., OVP Venture Partners, and Monitor Ventures. Individually, Sime Darby was reported to invest $30 million in return for a 30 percent stake in the company, which would give Verdezyne a valuation of $100 million

LanzaTech. In December the New Zealand Superannuation Fund made a US$60 million equity investment in leading gas fermentation company LanzaTech. While LanzaTech’s Series D round is not yet officially closed — the company has raised almost double its original target of $60-$80 million with a total of $120 million to date.

Last March, the round had a first close of $60 million led by Mitsui & Co. with a $20M investment. In all, the round to date includes new investors NZ Super Trust, Mitsui, Siemens via its Venture Capital unit, CICC Growth Capital Fund I and existing investors: Khosla Ventures, Qiming Venture Partners, K1W1 and the Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund. Existing investors Soft Bank Capital, PETRONAS Technology Ventures, and Dialog Group were not among the announced investors so far in this round.

Cool Planet. In March, Cool Planet announced that it had closed on its targeted $100 million Series D financing. It joins an elite group at the forefront of the biobased revolution including Solazyme, Amyris, POET and LanzaTech who have raised these kinds of amounts.

North Bridge Venture Partners and Concord Energy were the lead investors for the round. The round added investors from Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Mexico to a marquee existing investor base, including North Bridge Venture Partners, Shea Ventures, BP, Google Ventures, Energy Technology Ventures (GE, ConocoPhillips, NRG Energy), and the Constellation division of Exelon.

5. KIOR bankruptcy

In November, KiOR announced that as part of its refocus on research and development, it has accepted a bid for substantially all of its assets from certain affiliates of Vinod Khosla that have been providing and will continue to provide senior secured financing to the Company. The Company has also filed for relief under Chapter 11 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. Under the Bankruptcy Code, the bid is subject to higher and better offers and Court approval. The Company’s non-operational production facility in Columbus, Mississippi, which is owned by a wholly-owned subsidiary of KiOR, is not included in the filing.

6. REG LS9, Syntroleum acquisitions, expansion to EU

REG’s been on a merger & acquisition tear over the past 15 months, snapping up LS9, the remaining shares in Dynamic Fuels and launching a bid for Petrotec expected to close by year end.

In December, Renewable Energy Group and IC Green Energy announced ICG, Israel Corporation’s vehicle for investing in the alternative energy market, accepted an offer from REG European Holdings B.V. to purchase ICG’s 69 percent equity ownership in Petrotec AG for US $20.9 million, or US $1.235 per share, to be paid in newly issued REG shares valued at the 30 trading day volume-weighted average for the day prior to signing. The REG subsidiary will also purchase ICG’s loan to Petrotec AG in the amount of approximately US $15.4 million.

In August, Renewable Energy Group said that it planned to invest $15 million to bring the biodiesel plant in Geismar back online following its purchase from Syntroleum and Tyson Foods. Part of those costs are related to re-commissioning but funds will also be used to expand the 75 million gallon facility’s feedstock capacity beyond the current animal fats used.

In January, Renewable Energy Group announced it has acquired LS9 for a purchase price of up to $61.5 million, consisting of up front and earnout payments, in stock and cash. Most of the LS9 team, including the entire R&D leadership group, will join the newly named REG Life Sciences, LLC, which will operate out of LS9’s headquarters in South San Francisco, CA.

7. ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco on the move

In August, we learned that one of the brightest lights in cleantech these days, Siluria Technologies, is receiving a strategic investment from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV), the venture investment subsidiary of Saudi Aramco. The total raise for this initial close of Siluria’s Series D financing was $30 million, and included additional investments by all of the major existing investors in Siluria. To date, Siluria has raised just under $100 million since its inception, and we’re expecting that total to reach north of $120 million with a completed Series D financing by year end of $50 million, or perhaps slightly higher.

Meanwhile, BP was shedding its cellulosic assets and consolidating in Brazil, according to news we heard in December from BP headquarters that the company has determined to divest the cellulosic biofuels business amidst an overall corporate retrenchment, in the face of falling energy prices, that will result in more than “hundreds of jobs” lost in the UK, US and across the whole of BP’s global operation. “BP informed staff of a shift in focus in its global biofuels business,” the company told The Digest. “We are seeking to divest the cellulosic biofuels business.”

In November, Shell VP Matthew Tipper said at ABLCNext: “We will likely begin manufacture in the southeast United States. We plan to be operational by late this decade. We believe our best bet is woody biomass and energy crops as feedstocks. We plan to do this with a scale-up of smaller plants with widespread feedstock availability. The RFS is key to Shell’s advanced biofuel manufacturing ambitions. However, we continue to support RFS revision out of necessity. But NOT repeal. Importantly, advanced biofuels could ultimately supply a significant part, perhaps all, of Europe’s transport fuels needs. So we have big plans. We have a credible vision.”

In October, we reported that ExxonMobil had joined the pyromaniax, via a collab with Iowa State University regarding pyrolysis. But not a simple process development from what we know today. Rather, a deep investigation into pyro — what is actually going on inside the reactor, and what can be done for stabilization of the bio-oil that is so tantalizingly close to petroleum, but lacks that inert nature that leaves us in control of its transformation.

8. Solazyme, INEOS delays

In September, a report filed by the State of Florida in recent months and obtained by The Digest, disclosed that “although the [INEOS Bio New Planet Energy] facility in Vero Beach, Florida is officially operating, very little fermentation or production of ethanol from the production fermentor had occurred, primarily because of the sensitivity of the bio-organisms in the fermentation process to high levels of [hydrogen cyanide] in the syngas.”

Later in the month, INEOS Bio said that its Vero Beach facility has recently completed a major turn-around that included upgrades to the technology as well as completion of annual safety inspections. “We are now bringing the facility back on-line,” said Nigel Falcon, Site Director. “In addition we will soon finish installation of equipment that will be used to remove impurities from one of our process streams that have been negatively impacting operations. This equipment will be commissioned and brought online over the remainder of the year.”

In November, Solazyme roiled investors with this report: “Progress at Moema is more mixed with the upstream process operating as expected, while the downstream process will require continued work to establish consistent, fully integrated operations.” Then this, on the company’s strategy. “Commercially, we’re continuing to establish our Encapso and AlgaVia products in the marketplace while focusing additional attention on the development of higher value specialty products,” Wolfson said. “Strategically, we’re moving to intensify our focus on our high-value specialty portfolio, a move that will alter the near-term trajectory of our production ramp but which we believe will ultimately drive greater value for the Company.”

Analysts would use this shift in strategy as reason to downshift revenue growth, push out the “reaching break-even date” and raise the specter of a dilutive capital raise in 2015 to ensure liquidity for the company on its elongated timeline. Bottom line: Moema’s delayed, the big volumes are now in 2016 or 2017, so think higher margin, lower-volume markets for now.

9. The state of algae biofuels

One of the most widely-read articles we published all year was titled simply, “Where are we with algae biofuels?” We wrote: “If you have been looking for a good survey of algae’s progress towards markets like astaxanthin or omega-3 fatty acids, this isn’t going to be one of them. Here, we look at the prospects for algae biofuels — the roadblocks and the potential pathways forward.

We highlighted a National Research Council report, “sustainable development of algal biofuels would require research, development, and demonstration” in five key areas:

1. Algal strains with enhanced growth characteristics and biofuel productivity;

2. An energy return on investment (EROI) that is comparable to other transportation fuels or at least improving and approaching the EROIs of other transportation fuels;

3. Reactor strategies that use either wastewater for cultivating algae for fuels or recycled water from harvesting systems, particularly if freshwater algae are used;

4. Recycling of nutrients in algal biofuel pathways that require harvesting, unless coproducts are produced that meet an equivalent nutrient need; and

5. A national assessment of land requirements for algae cultivation to inform the potential amount of algal biofuels that could be produced economically in the United States. That assessment must take into account climatic conditions; freshwater, inland and coastal saline water, and wastewater resources; sources of CO2; and land prices.

10. Rise of Sorghum

For a number of years, the buzz around sorghum has been growing. Ceres is probably the best known company working on sorghum in the field, owing to its IPO a few years back — it focuses primarily on sweet sorghum. But in the past two years Chromatin and NexSteppe have dominated the headlines for biomass and sweet sorghum respectively, even while others like

We heard in July that Chromatin closed a three-year, $12.5 million credit facility with The PrivateBank. The credit facility represents Chromatin’s first financing with a commercial lender and provides capital to support the company’s rapidly expanding sorghum seed business. Chromatin has also raised over $70 million in equity financing.

In September, NexSteppe announced that it had raised $22M in its third round of funding. New investors Total Energy Ventures and ELFH Holding GmbH, a vehicle of the Berninghausen family in Germany, a serial founder and investor in cleantech, the wood industry and real estate, join existing investors Braemar Energy Ventures, CYM Ventures, DuPont Ventures and others.

 

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