The Biorefinery Project of the Future – Part X of 10 – Bringing it all Together

October 5, 2010 |

T’aint What You Do – It’s the Way That You Do it

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.

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.

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.

In part IX of our series, we looked 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.

Fuels of the community, by the community, for the community

In our series, we have looked at a wide variety of energy types, feedstocks and technologies, but one factor has been present in every part of our series and every conversation with bioenergy executives who are gaining traction. Biofuels are linked to carbon policy, and dramatically linked to energy security, but the beating heart of biofuels development is an unshakeable, symbiotic, sustainable relationship with the rural community surrounding the project locations.

While fossil fuels – and even other renewables – are the ultimate mercenaries, coming from anywhere, serving anyone – does anyone know (or in an actionable sense, care) where crude oil-based gasoline comes from, or where the electrons come from, whether they are from wind projects in Texas or coal-fired power plants in California. By contrast, successful biofuels developments are based on fuel of the community by the community, and for the community.

Take a look at BlueFire Renewables – mired for years in developing a project in California – it has established a project in Mississippi that, in less than 12 months, has gone from announcement to the securing of sites, permits, feedstock, offtake, and an EPC contract.  BlueFire CEO Arnold Klann has been adamant in crediting the “get it done” attitude in Mississippi as a key factor in accelerating that project.

Howdy, pardner

No successful biofuels enterprise is making progress, though, simply on the basis of city or town support. Counties issue permits, states issue regulations and provide support, and each much be engaged in the Bioenergy Project of the Future where it will be successful. But there are more partnerships that are crucial to the development and deployment of advanced technologies associated with our project.

No project, our interviewees have told us, can do it all alone. Research partnerships are crucial. Al Darzins, Principal Group Manger at the National Bioenergy Center at NREL, commenting on changes in the algal fuels movement and industry, said that the sophistication and size of collaborative partnerships like the NAABB were the most notable improvement in the outlook for the commercialization of algal fuels over the past two years.

Successful partnerships are going well beyond the research of advancing technologies. Companies like Virent and Coskata have brought in automakers like Honda and GM as strategic investors, giving them opportunities to ensure that the fuels being developed will be as well tuned for the evolving auto industry as possible. Companeis like PetroAlgae have developed strategic collaborations with engineering companies like FosterWheeler, who are developing bolt-on technologies for oil refiners that will allow them to co-process advanced biofeedstocks into biofuels.

Companies like Amyris and Gevo have acquired, or developed strategic partnerships, for production capacity that they can bolt their drop-in fuels technologies onto. Companies like Mascoma and ZeaChem have developed strategic partnerships with feedstock providers, while Waste Management has made investments into companies like Terrabon, Enerkem and S4 as potential high-value processors of their waste material streams. In some cases, companies are being formed as joint ventures between technology and offtake partners, such as Butamax or DDCE, or within a portfolio of investments, such as link companies such as Abengoa, Codexis, Dyadic, Shell, and Iogen.

On the offtake side, companies such as Solazyme and LS9 have attracted strategic partnerships and investments from the likes of Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal – moving far beyond the realm of fuel marketers towards the markets for fragrances, surfactants, and other bio-based materials. Dow and Algenol are collaborating on an algal ethanol project in Texas that can provide feedstock for Dow’s ethanol-to-ethylene process. Rentech and Targeted Growth have assembled portfolios of airline offtake partners.

But perhaps the most sustainable partnerships are the ones that companies like POET, Genera, and Ceres have developed that go right down to the individual growers. The USDA tells us that, in the 2010s, the short-term opportunities in enough feedstock to meet the 2022 Renewable Fuel Standard mandates are primarily in the energy grasses and agricultural residues that will be primarily grown in the Midwest and Southeast. Following this logic, the ultimate determiners of the fate of the RFS will be individual farmers making decisions for their families, and within the context of their communities.

No feedstock – no biofuels – its that simple – and that goes for “feedstock at unaffordable spot prices” as well. What moves the grower communities we have been in contact with, as we assembled this Bioenergy Project of the Future series?

Sure, money, and an opportunity to do well. But we heard just as many growers talk about the opportunity to keep their children closer to home after high school, in reviving rural communities that could offer the high-paying, challenging jobs suitable for an increasingly well-educated rural youth. We heard about bioenergy projects providing more deposits for local banks, that generally reinvest in local projects, We heard about growers who have more options for services close to home, as advanced bioenergy projects bring enough business in balers and new tractors to make local franchises feasible where they never were before.

We heard about community pools repaired, and low-income community homes repainted, by advanced bioenergy workers giving back to their local communities.

A catalyst for good things far beyond fuel

The fuel, it turns out, is just a catalyst for good things that motivate communities far more than the excitement around a new industry. But then – fuel was always a catalyst for human action and interaction, for the reason we put fuel in our cars is to empower our lives, more than just to power up a vehicle.

Empowering rural lives – that turns out to be the secret sauce in the Bioenergy Project of the Future. And in communities that are embracing advanced bioenergy projects, the future is happening right now.

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