The First Commercial Cellulosic Plant is NOT About to Open
House Ag Committee Holds Hearings on Energy
On May 18, 2012 the House Committee on Agriculture held hearings on retaining Energy Title funding in the 2012 Farm Bill. Written testimonies and the video of the hearing are available at Formulation of the 2012 Farm Bill: Energy and Forestry Programs.
The hearings were held as Congress prepares to write the next Farm Bill. The purpose of this particular hearing was to discuss the renewable energy development provisions of the current Farm Bill, whether particular programs are achieving the desired results, and whether specific programs should be continued.
There were some comments during the hearing that warrant further analysis.
During his initial testimony, Jim Greenwood, who is President and CEO of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) made the following comment (15:55 mark of the testimony): “INEOS Bio and its joint venture partner New Planet Energy are preparing to open the Indian River County BioEnergy Center, near Vero Beach, Florida within the next few weeks. The biorefinery is a major landmark for this country. It’s the first commercial cellulosic refinery.”
This claim has been repeated many times over the past decade — that one company or another was going to be the first to open a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant — but it is inaccurate.
Below is a short history of cellulosic ethanol production, which I detailed in The First Commercial Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in the U.S. All of this can be confirmed by visiting the U.S. Department of Energy – Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) link that I provide in the references.
A Brief History of Cellulosic Ethanol Production
Almost 200 years ago, in 1819, French chemist Henri Braconnot first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid (Braconnot 1819). The technique was later used by the Germans who were the first to commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898 (EERE 2009).
So the world’s first commercialization of cellulosic ethanol took place 114 years ago. First commercialization in the U.S. took place in 1910 — 102 years ago. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945). So actual production 100 years ago was up to about 2.5 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. Planned production at the INEOS facility is 8 million gallons per year.
In the decades after Standard Alcohol closed their plants, there were attempts at commercialization in the 1940′s and 1950′s, the 1970′s, and then of course over the past decade. Commercialization attempts have been global, and many different processes have been attempted. Countries attempting to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production include the U.S., Germany, Japan, and Russia.
Why does that matter? It should be obvious. Paraphrasing George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If people don’t realize that we have already commercialized cellulosic ethanol only to see it ultimately fail — and numerous people have claimed that one effort or another will be the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol facility — then they obviously don’t know why those efforts failed. Thus, they will make many of the same mistakes.
Building a Plant is Not the Issue
There was an interesting question by Republican Representative Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania (2:12:26 mark of the testimony): “Obviously the initial goal of the Energy Title in the 2008 Farm Bill was to spur the development of commercially viable cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels. However I am not sure that a single gallon of commercial cellulosic ethanol has been blended into the fuel supply. So it’s a two-part question for the panel. What challenges need to be addressed in order to address that issue and does the current Energy Title provide the tools to move toward the advancement of commercially viable cellulosic ethanol.”
The first attempt at an answer was by Jim Greenwood. He first mentioned that the recession slowed things down, and then he referred back to his opening statement on Ineos. He said that the structure is completed, and that “they are going to be producing cellulosic ethanol literally within the next couple or three weeks. So we have demonstrated now that the science is there, I think we have demonstrated with the construction of this plant that you can build a commercial facility, and now being able to demonstrate that we can move those fuels into the fuel stream for motorized vehicles is the final step to prove the whole concept.”
Two comments on that statement. First, start-up issues are assured. Once they attempt to start up, it will be a while before they are actually producing commercial cellulosic ethanol. They won’t do that right from the start. Second, I don’t think anyone ever doubted that you can build a commercial facility. Range Fuels built a commercial facility. The challenge is actually operating that facility to produce fuel that is to the right specification and economically priced.
The Problem of Scale
But then Jerry Taylor, who is the co-founder of MFA Oil Biomass provided a follow-up answer: “It takes 1,000 acres even at 12 tons an acre that we produce to produce 1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol based on the known conversion rates today.”
Taking his biomass yield assumptions of 12 tons an acre at face value (I doubt you can consistently get 12 dry tons per acre at large scale; commercial hay production is only around half that), we can do an interesting calculation. One million gallons of cellulosic ethanol has the same energy content as half a million gallons of crude oil. (Ethanol contains 2/3rds the energy of gasoline, but a barrel of crude also produces diesel, jet fuel, and fuel oil). U.S. oil production is presently 6.1 million barrels per day. That is 256 million gallons per day, 10.7 million gallons per hour, or 1 million gallons every 5.6 minutes.
Therefore, taking his yield assumptions at face value, 1,000 acres of land planted in Miscanthus giganteus over the course of a year could produce the energy equivalent of under 3 minutes of U.S. oil production. Of course U.S. oil production does not come close to meeting our needs, so to put it in terms of total U.S. oil demand of 18.7 million bpd, 1,000 acres of Miscanthus would cover 55 seconds of U.S. oil consumption. Since that doesn’t take into account the petroleum that will be required to produce the cellulosic ethanol (e.g., running trucks and tractors), the net number would be even lower.
That really puts it into perspective relative to the oil we consume. I have stated previously that I don’t believe cellulosic ethanol will ever be more than a niche fuel. I certainly do not believe we will see it scale up to billions of gallons of annual production. I believe the potential niches will utilize waste biomass and cheap energy inputs to produce fuel, but I don’t believe purpose grown biomass can be utilized to make competitively priced cellulosic ethanol (although I do believe it will be used for other energy purposes).
My previous prediction remains in place: Cellulosic ethanol as a scalable solution to our energy problems will never materialize. Companies will continue to attempt it on a small scale (with taxpayer help), but they will ultimately all end up where Iogen has ended up.
For those who don’t know, Iogen has produced cellulosic ethanol in Canada at a small scale since 2004. In 2011, they produced 98,000 gallons — 6.4 barrels per day. They probably understand the economics of cellulosic ethanol better than anyone in the business. They have announced many times their intention of building a large facility, but they have never done so. And they recently cancelled plans to build a larger facility. They know that despite all of the available subsidies, the economics of cellulosic ethanol are still poor.
Braconnot, H. Annalen der Physik. (1819) 63, 348.
EERE, U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (2009). Biomass Program. Retrieved May 26, 2012 from http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/printable_versions/dilute_acid.html
PDA, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. (1910). 16th Annual Report.
Sherrard, E.C.; Kressman, F.W. “Review of Processes in the United States Prior to World War II.” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol 37, No. 1, 1945, pp 5-8.
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