World-Herald editorial: Wait is ending for cellulosic

Source: Omaha World Herald • Posted: Monday, March 31, 2014

Year after year, it has been a familiar refrain in discussions about ethanol: “Cellulosic ethanol isn’t here yet, but it’s coming. Sometime.”

This year, however, is the year.

“Cellulose is here,” proclaimed Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, at the National Ethanol Conference.

“I’m thrilled to be able to say that this is the pivotal year in advanced ethanol production,” says Chris Standlee, executive vice president at Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies.

The first commercial production of cellulosic ethanol began in 2013, and this year biomass plants in Iowa will be taking the lead in expanding capacity. The facilities will take crop waste and non-edible plants and convert them into ethanol.

In June, a $250 million plant in Emmetsburg, a community in north central Iowa, is scheduled to begin operation. It will become one of the first significant producers of ethanol by converting corncobs, leaves, husk and stalk that pass through the combine during harvest.

The initial production goal is a minimum of 7 million gallons annually, with aims for later production of 20 million to 25 million gallons. The facility is a joint operation of an American firm, POET LLC, and a Dutch company Royal DSM.

Later this year, a second Iowa biomass facility is set to begin production. DuPont is investing $225 million in the facility in Nevada, Iowa, just north of Des Moines. The production capacity: 30 million gallons.

Also contributing to the cause will be new capacity added to an ethanol facility run by Quad County Corn Processors. Production is expected to begin this summer, with an annual output of 1.8 million to 2 million gallons.

Meanwhile to our south, production will get a boost in Kansas when a plant operated by Abengoa Bioenergy begins biomass ethanol production this year. The facility is expected to produce 25 million gallons a year.

It’s ironic that at the very time these biomass facilities are coming online, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has dealt a potential blow to the ethanol sector by proposing a dramatic reduction in the required production of ethanol, including from biomass.

“The agency is proposing a 16 percent reduction for ethanol and a biodiesel target 500 million gallons below 2013 production,” Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa and Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota said in a joint letter last month.

Branstad has rightly criticized the EPA proposal for undermining cellulosic ethanol production just as it’s getting underway in significant fashion. In January, the Iowa Legislature approved a resolution saying the EPA proposal “will cause a substantial reduction in the long-term investment in biofuels infrastructure and a reduction in investments in further energy innovation.”

Iowa and Nebraska are, respectively, the No. 1 and No. 2 ethanol-producing states, with 42 ethanol plants in Iowa (accounting for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s ethanol) and 23 plants in Nebraska. These facilities are major employers and economic contributors in their respective Midlands communities.

Distillers’ grains, a major byproduct of ethanol production, is used as cattle feed, including in Nebraska ranch country. Dinneen, the leader with the Renewable Fuels Association, notes that the typical ethanol plant generates 27 percent of its gross revenue from sales of such byproducts. From 2010 to 2013, the estimated market value of those products doubled to more than $9 billion.

After a long wait, cellulosic ethanol production is arriving, with Iowa in the forefront. The public interest will be best served if the EPA pulls back from its unwise restrictions and gives this promising new sector the flexibility it needs to expand the diversity of our country’s energy production.