INSIGHT: Cellulosic ethanol on verge of production but still an issue

07 March 2012 16:56  [Source: ICIS news]

By Brian Balboa

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Among the biggest issues at the recent National Ethanol Conference (NEC) in Orlando, Florida, was the lack of cellulosic ethanol production in the face of a US government mandate.

The topic has been a major issue between the US ethanol industry and US refiners.

In 2011, there was no cellulosic ethanol production at all other than at pilot plants, which could not be registered on a commercial scale. The lack of production also came in the face of a 6.6m gallon US government mandate for 2011.

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) have recently asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to retroactively waive the 2011 cellulosic ethanol/gasoline blending mandate because of no reported production volumes.

Following the NEC, one ethanol executive said that the promise of commercial-scale production has been a running theme within the industry for years, and he would believe in its promise when it came to fruition.

“The joke with the cellulosic ethanol is that it’s been five years from breaking through to the forefront of the industry for the last 25 years,” the executive said. 

In addition, the US government has given billions of dollars of assistance to the development of cellulosic ethanol production in the form of grants or loans. 

But, despite the heavy assistance from the US government, commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol is still some time away.

Ethanol industry representatives have addressed the lack of production and said that recent developments indicate that the payoff is likely within the next couple of years.

“This is the era of construction,” said Abengoa Bioenergy executive vice president Christopher Standlee at the recent NEC, citing many projects still in the works that are on target to have commercial-scale production. 

Major ethanol producers all have commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production expected to come online by 2014.

INEOS Bio expects to commission an 8m gal/year cellulosic ethanol facility in the second-quarter of 2012 at Vero Beach, Florida.

Valero and Mascoma are expected to complete a 20m gal/year cellulosic ethanol facility in Kinross, Michigan, by the end of 2013. 

And DuPont has plans to break ground on a 27.5m gal/year (104.1m litres/year) cellulosic ethanol plant in the second half of 2012 in Nevada, Iowa. The $200m (€152m) facility, which uses corn stover as a feedstock, should be operational in late 2013 or early 2014.

With commercial-scale production expected to arrive in the coming years, industry representatives have cited recent partnerships with oil companies and consumer companies as a sign that the industry is growing.

In addition to the agreement between Valero and Mascoma to complete a cellulosic ethanol facility in Kinross, specialist ethanol producer ZeaChem announced back in June 2011 a multi-year joint development agreement with Procter & Gamble (P&G).

P&G said then that the agreement was part of its long-term environmental sustainability goal, under which it would use 100% sustainably sourced renewable or recycled materials for all production and packaging.

Some industry representatives have also cited POET’s decision to forgo a $105m loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy as a sign that commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production is getting closer.

The ethanol producer’s decision to decline the loan came because of its 50/50 joint ventures with Netherlands-based Royal DSM to produce cellulosic ethanol.

However, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a trade body for the US ethanol industry, took a more measured view.

“Commercial production of cellulosic ethanol is indeed getting much closer, but we do not believe POET’S decision is indicative of that,” said RFA spokesman Matt Hartwig.

“Additionally, advanced and cellulosic ethanol technology companies are also exploring how they can partner their technologies with existing ethanol production to lower capital cost of bringing the technologies to scale,” he added.

Hartwig added that it was the RFA’s hope that, like the existing industry, the construction of next generation ethanol plants can secure the private financing needed to build.

“That would indicate a very important evolution of the industry has been made,” Hartwig said.

($1 = €0.76)

By: Brian Balboa
+1 713 525 2653

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