IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — As the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants open in the U.S. this year, energy experts say Idaho is well positioned to follow the leaders with a small facility that would convert barley and wheat stover feedstock into fuel.
Brooke Coleman, director of the Advanced Ethanol Council in Washington, D.C., said cellulosic ethanol is finally coming of age thanks to 2007 federal energy policy mandates, and he expects the new plants will demonstrate it can be competitively manufactured.
In Idaho, bioenergy leaders note the feasibility of a small cellulosic ethanol plant solely supported by wheat and barley stover feedstock was proven a few years ago, when IOGIN, Corp., based in Ottawa, Canada, announced plans to build such a plant in Shelley, Idaho. It ultimately opted to pursue a Canadian facility, instead.
Furthermore, officials with Pacific Ethanol, who operate four plants including one in Burley, Idaho, acknowledge a goal of their longterm business plan entails incorporating some cellulosic ethanol production at their conventional ethanol plants. They’ve made no proposals, thus far.
Nationally, INEOS Bio has already started production at a Vero Beach, Fla., plant that converts paper products from municipal waste into bioethanol and renewable power. A plant in Hugoton, Kan., should soon be making ethanol from wheat straw and corn stover, and a plant in Nevada, Iowa, will soon produce 25 million gallons of biofuel per year from corn cobs and stover.
In Emmetsburg, Iowa, a cellulosic ethanol facility is under construction by an existing, conventional ethanol plant. Power made from CO2 and other byproducts of cellulosic production will provide all of the energy needed by the conventional plant.
“It’s emerging to be one of the more cost-effective ways with minimal risk to do cellulosic ethanol is to put it next to corn ethanol,” Coleman said. “I think Pacific Ethanol is one of those companies that’s positioning themselves to come in right after this first group. We’ll see what they do.”
Paul Koehler, Pacific Ethanol’s vice president, said his company would likely consider small cellulosic facilities with annual production no greater than 10 million gallons.
“We’re looking at different ways to diversify our feedstocks and produce ethanol from non-corn sources,” Koehler said. “Cellulosic ethanol is out there, and Idaho could be a really great place.”
Christopher Wright, Idaho National Laboratory’s manager of biofuels and bioenergy, has been assisting Pacific Ethanol with technical questions. Wright’s program has studied how to most efficiently transport and store cellulosic ethanol feedstock for the past 12 years, investing $10 million to $15 million annually in bioenergy research. He concludes Idaho’s dry climate provides a storage advantage over the Midwest, enabling growers to leave stover outdoors under a tarp for up six to nine months without significant quality degradation.
His research should also facilitate the use of biomass feedstocks as an internationally traded commodity. He’s researched regional bioenegy depots where feedstocks could be ground, dried and otherwise condensed for shipping, quadrupling transportation efficiency.
Wright said INL shifted from ethanol research in 2012 and is now focused on logistics of cellulosic gasoline and jet fuel.