7 Hot Energy Crops for Advanced Biofuels: What’s Happening?

August 8, 2013 |

Haiti-jatropha-2Miscanthus, sorghum, switchgrass, jatropha, camelina, carinata, and arundo. Who’s doing what to bring these crops to scale — and who are the potential big winners?

Hot molecules, big markets, proven technologies, ready finance, supportive policy. Sometimes they feel  miles away, sometimes right at hand.

But none of them mean anything without sustainable, affordable, reliable, available feedstocks. In that respect, there are established crops and there are residues. And there are limitations.

In the case of the former, competing, existing customers — you can hardly get halfway to scale without crop prices going to Pluto. In the case of the latter, severe constraints on availability often apply. Just when you start feeling great about bagasse or stover, you realize that supply is limited by global demand for sugarcane or corn — and as for MSW, it all depends on how fast our garbage piles grow.

Bringing us to dedicated energy crops. As once advertised by the advocates of cellulosic ethanol back in the day — an almost limitless source of cellulose awaited the intrepid planter.

Turns out, harder to develop a new crop than previously advertised. There are the barriers that face crops themselves — yield limitations, input costs, and threats from pests, predators, disease, and competitors. Then there are the failures of “new energy crop business practices” — the rush to develop acreage instead of hybrid vigor, the rush to develop a grower base before understanding the genetics and optimizing varietals for local conditions.

But they keep on coming — some of them, anyway. And in today’s Digest, we look at seven of the hottest — terrestrial crops only (sorry, algae and duckweed) — but all backed by powerful developers and addressing the powerful interests of biofuels processors and their customers.

1. Miscanthus

Players: New Energy Farms

Customers: US growers

Pros and cons: Grows like a weed. Tough to harvest.

The latest: This week, NEF annoucned that they have established the first crops of Miscanthus for the University of Iowa Biomass project. The University will use the crops as fuel for the campus power plant, as part of a plan for 40 percent renewable energy consumption.

Principal Engineer of Renewables, University of Iowa, Ferman Milster, said: ‘The plot of Miscanthus will be planted on a farm near Muscatine, where the UI has a five-year rental agreement with a farmer. The hope is that within two or three years, the harvest of the plant from the test plot can be burned in the campus power plant as a renewable energy crop. The university also wants to contract with area farmers to grow more of the plant. We need thousands of acres of this”

The crop was established with NEF supplied rhizomes and internal automatic Miscanthus rhizome planters, images below.

NEF supply high quality low cost rhizomes of certified clones, and planting machinery from our production operations in the US (Georgia), Canada and the EU. All material is supplied free of any onward royalty payments or contracts, for use in either onward propagation or direct planting by the customer.  For Spring 2013 in the US and Canada prices for sterile Miscanthus x Giganteus rhizome material range from $0.05 to 0.08 per unit ex site. This equates to $400 per acre upwards for planting material, automatic rhizome planters also available for hire or purchase.

2. Sorghum

The players: Chromatin, Ceres, NexSteppe

The Customers: Aemetis, Constellation Energy, Brazilian ethanol producers

Pros and cons.  Already established in many regions; new genetics offer amazing upside. In Brazil, sweet sorghum hasn’t quite established a track record.

The latest: The Sorghum Checkoff in collaboration with the NCERC at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (formerly the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center) is pleased to announce a successful bench-scale evaluation of sweet sorghum juice sugars with corn mash for the production of fuel ethanol. This study expands upon a commercial-scale trial that was conducted in Hopkinsville, Ky., in late 2012 by Commonwealth Agri-Energy LLC, Delta BioRenewables LLC, Ceres Inc. and the Sorghum Checkoff.

The bench-scale study yielded critical data on the production of ethanol from a combination of the two feedstocks by evaluating fermentation performance at different levels of sweet sorghum juice inclusion in corn mash. The sugar juice was successfully used as a replacement for process water, demonstrating the potential for a corn ethanol plant to increase production above nameplate capacity by incorporating sweet sorghum juice sugars.

3. Switchgrass

The Players: Genera Energy

The Customers: Chemtex

Pros and cons: Big yields, fits nicely in big demand markets like the US. Tough to aggregate, tough to get growers to drop high-margin crops to embrace this promising newbie.

The latest: In January, the Knoxville News reported on a farmer who planted 90 acres of switchgrass in Loudon County for the expected market in cellulosic biofuels, but is this year feeding the crop to the cows. In commenting on p;lans by DuPont to build a cellulosic biofuels plant in the state, using feedstock aggregated by Genera Energy, Genera president and CEO Kelly Tiller told the News: “I don’t have anything that I can discuss publicly about a commercial project,” she says. “What I can say is that everything that has been said all along is really on track. … The message is exactly the same … that this is the plan and this is the sizable opportunity that is coming down the road.”

Last month, switchgrass trials for biomass fuel production have been successful both in their production and in their 10% co-firing with coal, but costs remains the key issue. It still costs more to grow switchgrass than it does to buy coal. Until state mandates require plants to reduce their GHGs, forcing them to switch to biomass rather than burn coal, the feedstock that can be grown successfully on marginal land is likely to only find a market as forage for cattle.

4. Jatropha

Players: SG Biofuels, Jatro

Customers: Bharat Petroleum.

Pros and cons: Big yields, big plantations established;  In the case of SGB alone, 250,000 acres signed up in various field trial and deployment agreements – including an agreement to trial jatropha with Bharat Petroleum in India with 86,000 acres for first phase commercial deployment following the trials — and a similar 75,000 acre deal in Brazil with a consortium including JETBIO, Airbus, the Inter-American Development Bank, Bioventures Brasil, Air BP and TAM Airlines. Also, getting near to sub-$100 per barrel total costs for crude jatropha oil. On the flip side, there is the history of “the blunder crop” — but as  SG Biofuels CEO Kirk Haney has pointed out, “jatropha didn’t fail, jatropha 1.0 business practices failed. Among them, poor farming practices, poor seed selection, poor site analysis, questionable claims.

“Every product that didn’t use hybrids or some kind of genetics will fail,” Haney told the Digest. ” It’s just impossible to get a high and consistent yield without an improved line. Those who do not have the hybrid vigor will never be successful. They will never see the early flowering, the big fruit clusters — and in the end they will be people who were very good at selling a vision.”

The latest: In April, Bloomberg reported that jatropha 2.0 developer SG Biofuels is “seeking a partner in Southeast Asia or Africa and expects to complete a cooperation deal within 180 days” to expand its growth in the hot, “growing zone” for jatropha.

5. Camelina

Players: AltAir, Great Plains — The Camelina Company

Customers: United Airlines

Pros and cons: Big potential as a wheat rotation crop, producing a fallow season crop and bigger wheat yields that follow-on. Tough to translate results into the field, and grower adoption has been slow.

The latest: In June, United Airlines executed a definitive purchase agreement with AltAir Fuels, and has agreed to buy 15 million gallons of lower-carbon, renewable jet fuel over a three-year period, with the option to purchase more.

With United’s strategic partnership, AltAir Fuels will retrofit part of an existing petroleum refinery to become a 30 million gallon, advanced biofuel refinery near Los Angeles, Calif. AltAir will produce low-carbon, renewable jet fuel and other renewable products.

The airline is purchasing the advanced biofuel at a price competitive with traditional, petroleum-based jet fuel, and AltAir expects to begin delivering five million gallons of renewable jet fuel per year to United starting in 2014. United will use the biofuel on flights operating out of its Los Angeles hub.

6. Carinata

The Players: Agrisoma

Customers: PGF Biofuels, canola growers

Pros and cons: Big potential, perhaps even more than camelina in yield and economics; and a supportive grower base that had a good experience with canola. However, the yields are not quite there yet and there isn’t enough acreage planted to generate sufficient seed to really power deployment at massive scale for several more seasons.

The latest: In April,  Calyx Bio-Ventures announced that its majority-owned subsidiary, Agrisoma Biosciences Inc. and PGF Biofuels Inc. have entered into a long term strategic agreement for marketing and distribution. The new long-term agreement appoints PGF as Agrisoma’s exclusive partner for Resonance carinata, a non-food oilseed crop, in North America and Australia, and establishes a framework through which PGF and Agrisoma will coordinate expansion into additional regions. Under the original agreement in 2012, Paterson was the exclusive contracting partner for the production of Resonance in Western Canada.

Paterson played a key role in the commercial production launch of Resonance in 2012, acting as the contracting partner for 6,000 acres planted and harvested last year at approximately 40 farms in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Fifty acres were planted in 2011. Under the new agreement Paterson will manage the purchase of Resonance® carinata production from growers and the subsequent processing and sale of product. Agrisoma will be paid a royalty on sales generated from Resonance carinata, which will vary depending on the nature of the end products sold.

7. Arundo

The Players: Orapa

Customers: Chemtex

Pros and cons: massive yields (as high as 50 tons per acre per year in highly juiced test plots). But not much deployment to date, and arundo is considered an invasive species by many, a potential kudzu.

The latest:  Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a supplemental final rule, containing a lifecycle greenhouse gas analysis for renewable fuels made from giant reed (Arundo donax) and napier grass, and a regulatory determination that such fuels qualify as cellulosic renewable fuel under the RFS program.

In the rule, EPA addressed concerns over the potential for these feedstocks to behave as invasive species by adopting a set of new registration, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements.

The RMP will include plans for early detection and rapid response to potential spread, best management practices as modeled by existing state and federal invasive species management programs, continuous monitoring and reporting of site conditions, a plan for site closure and post-closure monitoring, and identification of a third party auditor who will evaluate the performance of the RMP on an ongoing annual basis.

Short term, this rule will have the most immediate impact on the proposed Beta Renewables project in North Carolina. At one point, the proposed BP cellulosic biofuels project in Florida was to have employed napiergrass, but that project was sidelined.

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