World’s First Commercial Cellulosic Biofuel Plant Is Fit for a King

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, September 8, 2014

On September 3, thousands gathered in Emmetsburg, Iowa to celebrate the first commercial cellulosic biofuels plant, Poet-DSM’s Project Liberty.  Guests included Feike Sijbesma, CEO of Royal DSM, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.  They were there to mark the culmination of a decade’s long project that represents $275 million in state, federal, private, and international investment.  And the news from Iowa is not just exciting for local corn farmers, but provides proof that advanced biofuels are no longer ‘phantom fuels.’ Instead, it celebrates the promise such an international partnership holds for the future of renewable energy and represents a “new energy future,” according to Poet’s founder Jeff Broin.  In this future, regionally appropriate renewable fuels and energy could eventually replace fossil fuels.

Project Liberty is a joint venture between Poet, a South Dakota ethanol company, and Royal DSM of the Netherlands, a biotechnology company. Using agricultural waste products from surrounding farms, including corncobs, leaves and husks (referred to as corn stover), Project Liberty will convert 770 tons of agricultural waste a day into 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. While there has been some controversy over the appropriate levels for corn stover removal from the fields, sustainable harvest levels do exist.  This balance provides important soil organic content to the field, with the surplus stover being used for cellulosic biofuels.  Since transportation is responsible for roughly 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, addressing emissions from transportation fuels is critical in order to address climate change.  The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) mandates that cellulosic ethanol must meet GHG gas reductions of at least 60 percent, relative to conventional gasoline.  Research from Argonne National lab and others have demonstrated that with recent improvements to technology and inputs, cellulosic ethanol could reach GHG reduction levels of more than 95 percent when compared with gasoline.   Additionally, the plant will be run on biogas that is refined on site, with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack boasting on the plant’s efficiency, “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.”

The sustainable use of agricultural waste has another benefit – putting more dollars into rural economies.  Poet-DSM reports that they will pay $20 million per year to farmers in a 45 mile radius, and overall bring in $2 billion to the state through tax revenue.   Poet-DSM’s commercial process of turning cellulose into fuel will also be leased worldwide, with $250 million total expected annual profits by 2020.   According to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, it is a watershed moment for rural development, saying, “It’s great that we’re reducing our reliance on foreign oil. It’s great that there are thousands of jobs that are impacted.  It’s great that producers will have a more stable income… But for me, what’s most important about this is it says to the young person … in small-town USA, that there is nothing preventing you from realizing … the American dream.”

While the day was primarily for celebration, there was an undercurrent of uncertainty.  With EPA’s final decision on the lowering of renewable fuel volumes for 2014 expected imminently, many spoke of the chilling effect this has already had on investment in advanced cellulosic technologies.  Infrastructure was also a topic of discussion, with Vilsack noting that it is a mistake to think that rail infrastructure – critical for shipping ethanol – doesn’t need updating.  Despite these setbacks, Department of Energy Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Energy Michael Knotek, noted that the U.S. could sustain 1,000 cellulosic ethanol plants as soon as 2040. Furthermore, two additional cellulosic ethanol plants are expected to come online this fall, DuPont’s $225 million plant in Nevada, IA, and Abegoa’s 25 million gallon a year plant in Hugoton, KS. Wednesday marked a major milestone — the first step in the advanced fuels economy.