Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

Iowa representatives criticize EPA’s biofuel waivers


Tyler Chalfant | August 21st, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted waivers from federal biofuel law to 31 small oil refineries. Members of Congress from Iowa on both sides of the aisle have criticized this move for hurting the state’s renewable fuel industry. 

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, refineries are normally required to blend biofuels like ethanol into their gasoline, or to purchase credits from those that do so. However, exemptions are available for small refineries that can prove that compliance with the rule would cause significant financial strife.

From 2013 to 2015, the EPA granted no more than eight waivers per year, but since Trump took office, the number of waivers has quadrupled. This latest round brings the total to 85 since 2016, and includes refineries owned by ExxonMobil and Chevron.

13 ethanol plants have recently shut down, three of them permanently, in part due to the loss in demand caused by these waivers. The country’s largest ethanol producer POET blamed the EPA as it was forced to close an Indiana plant on Tuesday.

Senator Chuck Grassley accused the government of not keeping its word and “screwing the farmer when we already have low prices for grain.” Iowa is the leading producer of corn and ethanol production in the U.S., and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state.

American Ethanol team participating in RAGBRAI XLII


Nick Fetty | July 22, 2014

Members of the American Ethanol RAGBRAI team. Photo via GrowthEnergy.org
Members of the American Ethanol RAGBRAI team.
Photo via GrowthEnergy.org

The 42nd (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa – better known as RAGBRAI – kicked off on Sunday and this year’s event features a nearly 200-person team representing American Ethanol.

This year’s route passes through “the heart of Iowa’s ethanol producing regions” and ethanol plants along the route will host various events throughout the week. The Biofuels Mobile Education Center – a 45-foot trailer with touch screen computers and other interactive equipment – is making stops in Emmetsburg, Charles City and Mason City. The No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet SS – driven by 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillion of Richard Childress Racing – will also make stops in Emmetsburg and Mason City as well as Sheldon.

Since 2011, American Ethanol has been a key partner in implementing green efforts for NASCAR. As of September 2012, more than 3 million miles have been fueled by Sunoco Green E15 – “a highly oxygenated unleaded race fuel that contains 15 volume percent ethanol.” Growth Energy, POET, Green Plains Inc., Monsanto and New Holland have also teamed with American Ethanol to sponsor the RAGBRAI team.

For updates from the American Ethanol team throughout RAGBRAI, follow the group on Facebook and Twitter.