Cellulosic Ethanol Comes to the Southeast

Stephen Smith | February 2, 2010 | Clean Transportation

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.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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