Wood, not corn, may be New York’s renewable fuel future

Source: By Brian Nearing, Times Union • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2019

  • The Port of Beaumont signed up anew business and is bringing in pelletized wood waste for export to Europe. It's a kind of wood pellet made from saw mill residual and sawdust that is intended to help take the place of coal at European power plants. The pellets are from a plant in Crockett Texas. Photo: Dave Ryan / Beaumont
Photo: Dave Ryan

A Georgia company is buying the largest corn ethanol refinery in the state and vowing that it one day will use the state’s abundant forests, rather than food, to make the next generation of renewable energy.

Attis Industries is paying $20 million to fossil fuel giant Sunoco for a 90-acre facility near Fulton in Oswego County, according to the company on Tuesday.

Attis CEO Jeff Cosman said the company plans to invest up to $100 million over the next two years to transform the plant into a “first-of-its-kind, major renewable energy campus” that will explore how to gain energy, plastics and other products from wood wastes.

Attis has businesses in the healthcare, medical waste, and environmental technology sectors. This would be the company’s first biorefinery.

Sunoco has been making corn ethanol in Fulton since acquiring and rebuilding the property, a former Miller brewery, in 2009. The plant now consumes about 22 million bushels of corn a year from as far away as Ohio to make about 85 million gallons of ethanol, which is later blended into gasoline.

Fulton is one of two corn ethanol refineries in the state; the other facility is owned by Western Energy New York and is located in Medina, Orleans County, where it produces about 60 million gallons a year.

Attis’ purchase of the Fulton plant, which also includes a malt house used for the craft beverage industry, came about a week after the company announced that it was partnering with Danish-based Novozymes, the world’s largest producer of industrial enzymes, to crack an alternative energy refining puzzle that has so far proved difficult — cellulosic biofuels.

Cellulosic biofuel uses plant wastes, unlike corn ethanol, which uses corn feed in the fermentation process to produce ethanol, which is then blended into gasoline. Cellulose forms the woody fiber of the plant and is difficult and costly to break down into the sugars needed for successful fermentation. Novozymes makes enzymes designed to break down the cellulose into sugars.

Chris Kennedy, vice president for Attis Innovations, said the company “absolutely” wants to start cellulosic ethanol production at the rebuilt Fulton refinery.

“Attis has a number of proprietary technologies that focus on converting forest waste and other woody biomass into cellulosic fuels and other bioproducts like carbon fiber and plastics,” he said.

“New York State has over 18 million acres of forest lands that produce a wealth of sustainable feedstocks for Attis’ planned non-corn biofuel production,” Kennedy said. “State forest lands can produce 40 to 60 million tons of “new-growth” biomass annually and Attis needs less than 0.3 percent of this regenerating supply to supply one of its biorefineries.”

U.S. production of cellulosic ethanol has lagged badly behind federal alternative fuel mandates that started in 2010.

That target under the Renewable Fuel Standard was for 100 million gallons to be blended into the national fuel supply  in 2010, a half-billion gallons in 2012, one billion gallons in 2013, and 5.5 billion gallons by 2017.

However, production has proved difficult, and by 2017, only 10 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced that year. The federal mandate for cellulosic ethanol keeps increasing and hits 16 billion gallons by 2022.

In announcing the partnership with Novozymes, Attis said the company’s enzyme technology for “cellulosic biofuels production” had the “ability to ramp up production as needed in an effort to support Attis’ ambitious growth plans.”

Novoenzymes opened up a $200 million enzyme production plant in Nebraska in 2012, supported by a $28.4 million federal tax credit under an alternative energy expansion plan by the administration of former President Barack Obama.