Emmetsburg cellulosic ethanol plant: Fuel for the future

Source: Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, September 4, 2014

DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma, His Royal Majest King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and POET Founder/Executive Chairman Jeff Broin cut a ribbon during the grand opening of POET-DSM's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, IA Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014.

EMMETSBURG, Ia. — A new $275 million ethanol plant that uses corncobs, leaves and husks to produce ethanol provides the foundation for a “new energy future” that reduces America’s reliance on foreign oil, is more environmentally friendly and can help revitalize rural America, officials said Wednesday at the opening of Poet-DSM’s Project Liberty.

Poet founder Jeff Broin said the cellulosic plant could help transform the nation’s energy supply — and its economy.

“What we see around us today is a symbol of what can be accomplished through the miracle of nature, the work of the farmer and the power of human ingenuity — the complete transformation from a fossil-based economy to a renewable-fuels economy,” Broin told about 3,000 local farmers and state, federal and international leaders.

“It may not be completed in our lifetime, but it will happen,” Broin said. “It simply has to. There’s a limited supply of fossil fuel. How much? No one knows for sure, but there is a limit. It’s an undeniable fact. And the solution is here.”

Poet-DSM needed more than a decade to develop the technology used in the plant and more than $120 million in state and federal grants.

Poet, a South Dakota ethanol producer, and Royal DSM of the Netherlands partnered on the project.

The list of speakers at Wednesday’s opening included Feike Sijbesma, CEO of Royal DSM, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Undersecretary Michael Knotek of the U.S. Department of Energy, Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Guests included King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.

One cloud hovering over the celebration was a federal proposal to scale back how much renewable fuel must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed reducing the Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol and biodiesel.

EPA has received 300,000 comments.

Broin and others said the EPA’s decision, expected this summer, could hinder U.S. investment in the technology.

The plant, considered the next generation in ethanol fuel production, will convert 770 tons of crop residue per day into cellulosic ethanol. The company pays about $20 million annually to farmers within about 45 miles of the plant for their corn stover.

So far, the plant has produced several hundred gallons.

It is expected to ultimately reach 25 million gallons per year.

Poet-DSM would like to license its cellulosic ethanol technology to companies across the nation and around the world.

It says it has the potential to achieve net sales of about $250 million from bioethanol production and licensing income by 2020.

Leaders said investors from China, India and Brazil were at the opening to learn more about how the plant operates.

Broin said in a video — part of the highly produced celebration — that the United States has 1 billion tons of crop cellulose “that goes to waste” and could be used to create 80 billion gallons of ethanol annually — enough fuel to “replace basically all the oil imports to the U.S.”

Broin told the audience: “When you combine the seed, soil, sun, imagination and good old-fashioned hard work, there is infinite supply of food and fuel.”

Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor, said cellulosic ethanol has the power to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint — and the impact of climate change.

Using cellulosic ethanol can reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 95 percent when compared with gasoline, officials said.

Transportation contributes nearly 30 percent of the greenhouse gases that trap heat and cause the Earth’s temperature to climb.

The cellulosic plant generates a biogas that’s used to power both it and the corn ethanol plant next door.

The facility, Vilsack said, is “literally taking the impact of millions of cars off the roads and cleaning our air.”

“There may be some who say, ‘Is it sustainable? Does it protect the environment? Does it help us as we deal with weather variabilities?'” Vilsack said. “I say to those who are so skeptical: Come to Emmetsburg. See for yourself a facility that’s so efficient, it doesn’t need outside power sources. It can produce its own power from the production process.”

Additionally, Vilsack said the project — and others that follow it — have the potential to help revitalize rural Iowa and America.

The state estimates the project will create a $24.4 billion economic impact on the state over 20 years and create thousands of jobs.

Today, the project has created 50 jobs at the plant and another 65 jobs collecting biomass.

“What’s the big deal? It’s great that we’re reducing our reliance on foreign oil. It’s great there are thousands of jobs that are impacted. It’s great that producers will have a more stable income,” Vilsack said.

“But for me, what’s most important about this is it says to the young person in Emmetsburg, in small-town Iowa, and in small-town USA, that there is nothing from preventing you from realizing … the American dream.”