Cellulosic Ethanol Comes to the Southeast

We have heard a lot of promise and lots of talk about cellulosic ethanol. Friday January 29th, I attended the opening ceremony of the DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC (DDCE)/Genera cellulosic ethanol plant in Vonore, Tenn.

vonore-facilityThis scale-up of the technology represents a major milestone in sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.  SACE has not been a big supporter of corn-based ethanol for a number of reasons, especially water use and concerns about food, but we do see the advantages of natural grasses and other sustainable biomass sources. SACE does support sustainable cellulosic ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels.

switchgrassThe new Vonore facility will produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol as the partnership continues to develop and the process moves toward full commercial scale. DuPont Danisco brought the technology for converting corncobs to ethanol. The chemical structure of corncobs is similar to switchgrass. Genera, through its parent University of Tennessee, has been working with farmers in the state to start to growing the switchgrass feedstock needed for the plant when it converts from corn cobs to switchgrass later this year.

I listened to the speakers at the ribbon cutting, some with more understanding of the significance of the event than others. Joe Skurla from DDCE quoted President Obama’s line from his State of the Union: “The nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy, and America must be that nation.” He seemed to understand the race that the United States is in to lead the clean energy revolution.  This technology should play an important role.

Speaking later, Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN3) who is running for Governor in 2010, could not resist taking a cheap shot at legislation to curb global warming by saying, “we don’t need a cap and trade tax legislation. This plant and the solar plants coming into Tennessee are coming without such legislation.” While he is correct — thanks to Tennessee’s current Governor’s major investment — clean tech is coming to Tennessee.

Wamp totally doesn’t get it! A price on carbon through federal legislation is exactly what these companies are ramping up for. This is what will allow the market to reward clean tech investments and allow us to move away from dangerous fossil fuels and toward clean fuels like cellulosic ethanol. It will help us end our addiction to foreign oil and get the markets right to unleash greater innovation.

The US is falling behind. China may already be winning this race, and those who block legislation that will send the right market signals for clean tech will be to blame.  While the ethanol plant’s volume of 250,000 gallons is small, as the technology continues to scale-up and Genera/UTK continue to support farmers in growing the switchgrass feedstock, this ribbon cutting could be a truly historic event.

Meanwhile, the Southeast region continues to move forward with sustainable cellulosic ethanol developments.  In Soperton, Ga., Range Fuels is now scheduled to begin production in the first quarter of 2010, with volume production in the second quarter. This first phase of the development will make 10 million-gallons-per-year, but the project will eventually make 100 million-gallons-per-year. To support the Soperton project, Range Fuels announced an $80 million loan guarantee from USDA on January 19, 2009 to assist with the cellulosic ethanol plant’s construction.

Just last month, the company also announced good news towards making the production timeline a reality; a new collaborative with North Carolina company, ArborGen, on a project to study purpose-grown trees for biofuels. In 2008 ArborGen planted demonstration plots of hardwoods and pines, in vicinity of Range Fuels’ Soperton project. The plots will be used to identify which trees can be grown successfully and how effectively these trees can be used to convert plant cellulose to cellulosic biofuel. The research will also help Range Fuels understand the economic, environmental and logistical issues surrounding the planting, management, harvesting, storage and transportation of purpose-grown trees as a biofuels feedstock.

Georgia is getting another boost in leading on cellulosic ethanol in the town of Thomaston. Diamond Alternative Energy and America Process Inc. (API) announced a new demonstration plant opening later this year. The company estimates that its process can yield up to 22.6 million gallons of ethanol from a pulp mill producing 500 tons per day of pulp. At demonstration scale, it is expected to create 25-30 jobs.

With our national imports about 10 million barrels of oil per day, increasing our local production of sustainable biofuels is vital to reducing our dependence on foreign oil and improving our national security.  With terrorism in the headlines again, we need it now more than ever.

Anne Blair and John Bonitz assisted in authoring this post.

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7 Comments

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What a waste of taxpayers money when we could already be using old fashion fermentation to produce ethanol fuel for a fraction of the cost of “researching” unproven cellulosic ethanol production so the mega corporations can keep a stranglehold on our fuel supplies.

Ford’s Model A, ran on alcohol and you could buy farm produced alcohol all across the nation.

Alcohol is the world’s second oldest profession. Also fermentation ethanol fuel production produces co-products that can be used to produce more organic foods than are used to create ethanol. It is an amazing example of true permaculture than can support successful and sustainable agriculture for many generations to come. The key to our success in clean fuels will be in small scale community ethanol production.


Comment by Mark on February 2, 2010 4:36 pm


Mark, thanks for your comment, what is the feedstock that you propose to use for “farm produced ethanol”?
The reason we support cellulosic ethanol is it allows for the use of some sugars, cellulose and hemicellulose which currently can not be used in fermentation.


Comment by Stephen Smith on February 2, 2010 5:30 pm


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I am a member and a big fan of many of SACE’s program but I find it troubling that SACE would unequivocally support cellulosic ethanol without safeguards for the forest resources that will be necessary to feed such facilities on a large scale, and that SACE would tout Arborgen and its development of genetically engineered trees for this purpose, when there are serious dangers for the native biodiversity and the water resources of our region. I think that SACE is demonstrating some tunnel vision with these positions and needs to work more with other organizations to find a truly sustainable path which embraces new energy technologies and innovation but does not sacrifice the other natural assets of the southern US in the process. If you have research or a vision for how we can ramp up cellulosic biofuel from trees without threatening natural forests and biodiversity (and without GE trees), it would be welcome reading.


Comment by Joshua on February 5, 2010 2:58 pm


Thanks for your concerns, Joshua. We agree, and that’s why SACE is quite equivocal in our support for cellulosic ethanol. We constantly point to the need for sustainability, and are quite mindful of these complexities. Perhaps we should have put greater emphasis on this point, but Dr Smith’s blog entry included a link to an article about scientific consensus on which types of biomass are truly sustainable. http://bit.ly/biomass_consensus I commend this paper to you. The scientists endorsing this position even include Dr Tim Searchinger, famous for his criticisms of biofuels.

As for Arborgen, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Dr Maud Hinchee presenting last week on the tremendous productivity gains our woodlands can gain without genetic engineering. See the middle scenarios in slides 10 and 11 of this PDF.

As for working with other organizations, we welcome collaboration wherever possible. We work frequently with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on biomass issues. In Georgia, just this past Monday we had a very productive meeting with a broad coalition of groups, the second in a series of dialogues with more than 24 GA environmental groups seeking to learn more about biomass electricity. In North Carolina we collaborate regularly with a coalition of nearly a dozen different environmental groups, with the facilitation of the NC Conservation Network.

Getting biomass energy right is going to be a challenge, but it is vitally important that we do everything we can to get it right. Whenever and wherever people are willing to engage in serious dialogue on this subject, we strive to be there. So, thank you for engaging!


Comment by John Bonitz on February 5, 2010 8:55 pm


Thank you for the response, and for the link to the scientific paper on biofuels. It is interesting and relevant reading.

One of the five streams that are designated as “ok” in the paper are, “Sustainably harvested wood and forest residues.” We all know the word “sustainable” is a nebulous and oft-corrupted word, and such language does not ensure adequate safeguards. That being said, how has SACE determined/certified that the facility in the article above and others individually and collectively now and in the future will meet a sustainability standard.

And it would be fantastic for SACE to establish a position that clearly discourages planting genetically engineered trees in our region. Can we expect that? Can the members vote on it?


Comment by Joshua on February 8, 2010 1:49 pm


Joshua, thanks for the feedback.

Regarding the question of sustainability for any particular bioenergy facility, SACE reviews biopower and biofuels projects carefully on a case-by-case basis, looking at basic and advanced criteria including environmental, economic, social impacts, and energy supply & demand. Specifically we evaluate feedstock types, feedstock supply, energy output, efficiency, nearby projects, jobs and local economic development, emissions, water use, and numerous other criteria. While we look at projects on a case-by-case basis, we also consider how the project will impact a transition in the way we produce energy in our region.

Regarding genetically engineered trees, SACE has not yet formalized a policy on this. However, based on our estimates, we currently do not see this as necessary to meet our biomass resource supply needs.

We appreciate your questions and will look at engaging our members in future discussions like these.


Comment by John Bonitz on February 9, 2010 5:37 pm


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