The Logistics Problem of Cellulosic Ethanol
Update: This article got a mention in today’s Wall Street Journal Energy Roundup.
In my essay Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check, I identified several big challenges that must be addressed before cellulosic ethanol is commercially feasible. One of these is the logistics problem, and a recent story in the Omaha World-Herald emphasizes the point:
The article describes the logistics challenges for a single ethanol plant:
The logistics of collecting and storing a million tons of corn stubble each year for an ethanol refinery are mind-numbing.
It would take 67,000 semitrailer loads to haul the baled stubble out of the field. That’s 187 truckloads a day, or one every eight minutes. To complicate matters, the need for trucks, machinery and manpower would come during harvest, already the busiest time of the year on the farm. And that’s where a massive federal initiative into cellulosic ethanol may find its biggest bottleneck – on the farm.
According to the article, a million tons would produce 80 million gallons of ethanol. This would be enough on a gross basis to displace 0.04% of our gasoline usage. So, if all the inputs were free, all we would need is 2,500 of these facilities, and we will have met all U.S. gasoline needs (but not diesel, fuel oil, or jet fuel). Ah, but we forgot about energy inputs. How many gallons of fossil fuels did it take to run all of those semi-trailer trucks to take the stubble to the plant? How much natural gas was required to distill off the ethanol? But we are told that these are “small problems.” Easily resolved.
The article also highlighted the cellulosic pilot plants that are being built:
Many of the questions surrounding cellulosic ethanol could be answered in the next 10 years as six pilot plants are built with the help of $385 million in grants from the Energy Department.
The list was interesting, because I have heard several of these described as full-fledged ethanol plants:
These are the six pilot projects awarded $385 million in grants by the Department of Energy to construct biomass ethanol plants:
Emmetsburg, Iowa – ($80 million). Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, S.D. Using 842 tons per day of corn fiber, cobs and stalks.
Soperton, Ga. – ($76 million). Range Fuels of Broomfield, Colo. Using 1,200 tons a day of wood residues and wood-based energy crops.
Shelley, Idaho – ($80 million). Iogen Biorefinery Partners of Arlington, Va. Using 700 tons a day of wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover, switchgrass and rice straw.
Southern California – ($40 million). BlueFire Ethanol of Irvine, Calif. Using 700 tons per day of sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills.
Kansas (site undetermined) – ($76 million). Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Missouri. Using 700 tons a day of corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and switchgrass.
Hendry County, Fla. – ($33 million). ALICO Inc. Using 770 tons per day of yard, wood and vegetative wastes.
Again, according to the article 1 ton of biomass is going to produce 80 gallons of ethanol. The capital costs alone on some of these is in the $60,000 per daily barrel range. That puts capital costs at 2-3 times those of a conventional grain ethanol plant, and over 3 times those of an oil refinery. And I suspect that they are going to find that they have very high operating costs as well.
So, what are we going to find out in 10 years? I could tell you, but the ethanol proponents would tell me that I just lack vision.