Editorial: Kansas ethanol

Source: By The Hutchinson News Editorial Board • Posted: Monday, December 14, 2015

The closing of a cutting-edge cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton is a setback not only for the southwest Kansas economy but also for the technological advancement of the ethanol industry.

Abengoa shut down the plant last month – eliminating about 50 jobs – a little more than a year after a grand opening celebration featuring high-level state and federal officials. The company also shut down its small traditional ethanol plant in Colwich.

It’s important to note that the closures are because of Abengoa’s financial condition as a company, not because of the viability of ethanol plants, many of which continue to operate successfully in Kansas. The Spanish company, which has operations worldwide, on Nov. 25 filed for legal protection from its heavy debt load.

That said, the viability of cellulosic ethanol may be in question, reinforced by remarks this week by a Finney County economic development official. Ethanol fuel in the U.S. is most commonly produced with grain such as corn and milo. The $500 million Hugoton plant is the largest cellulosic biorefinery in the world. It can take inedible crop waste such as stalks, leaves and husks, and turn it into an ethanol fuel.

Finney County Economic Development Corp. President Lona DuVall told her board that she doesn’t think cellulosic ethanol production technology is working on a large scale yet. Small-scale experiments in the lab have been promising, she said, but cellulosic ethanol hasn’t materialized at high production levels.

“It would not have been a project that I would have encouraged our community to invest in, largely because there’s not a lot of extra (leftover biomass) out here. The goal of cellulosic was to use everything standing out in the fields. Well, we’re already using a pretty significant amount of every crop produced out here,” she said.

The Abengoa plant reportedly never sold any ethanol. It got a $132 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and another $97 million DOE grant for construction. Despite Abengoa’s financial situation and not having sold any biofuel produced at Hugoton, the DOE reports that it fully paid back its loan guarantee in March.

Cellulosic is a huge advancement in the ethanol industry, which in the U.S. traditionally has relied on corn. But corn-based ethanol has competed with food and feed grain needs for corn. It also is a water-intensive crop, and that renders the net environmental value of the ethanol questionable.

The Hugoton plant had one more innovative feature. By using residual biomass solids from the ethanol conversion process, the plant could generate 21 megawatts of electricity – enough to power itself and provide excess clean renewable power to the community and area.

Neither Hugoton nor the region should give up on the Hugoton cellulosic ethanol project. Until we have more conclusive proof to the contrary, it remains a promising technology that puts Kansas on the forefront of biofuels development.

Hutchinson News editorial board