EPA Chief and Ag Secretary on RFS at NFU

The heads of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency spoke to the National Farmers Union (NFU) convention in Wichita Monday and talked about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

nfu15-ginaEPA Administrator Gina McCarthy admitted that her agency was “in the hot seat” over the RFS after failing to set standards for the industry last year.

“The RFS is a complicated program, and we weren’t able to accomplish what we needed to do last year,” she said. “Implementing the RFS as Congress intended has been challenging.”

“We need to set levels that send a longer-term message,” McCarthy continued, explaining the agency’s intention to set Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs) for 2014, 2015, and 2016 before summer of this year.

Listen to McCarthy’s speech here, courtesy of Ken Rahjes, AgView.net. EPA Chief Gina McCarthy at 2015 NFU Convention

nfu15-tomAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed his continued support for the RFS. “I love the RFS – I’m for RFS,” he said. “We need to make sure Congress doesn’t do anything to damage it or repeal it or make it difficult to use. We need to be advocates, spokespeople for this industry. We need to go out and tell folks this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Vilsack urged the crowd to continue to educate the public about the potential of weaning the nation from foreign oil imports and highlighting the potential of renewable fuels. He pointed to areas of the economy, like the military, that were converting to home grown fuels. “Navy is starting to look at renewable fuels. I am optimistic about this. We need to be advocates for this industry. We don’t want to lose this amazing marketing opportunity.”

New USDA Report Shows Ethanol Increasing Efficiency

Patriot Renewable Fuels in Annawan, Illinois

Patriot Renewable Fuels in Annawan, Illinois

The amount of corn necessary to make a gallon of ethanol is less than previously believed according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

In today’s monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Report (WASDE), corn use for ethanol production was projected 50 million bushels lower based on the new Grain Crushings and Co-Products Production report recently released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), citing “a higher rate of conversion than previously assumed” as the reasoning for the adjustment.

“What is most remarkable about this supply and demand report is the light it sheds on a topic of great concern to U.S. corn farmers – recognition of the growing efficiencies in the ethanol industry,” said National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) President Chip Bowling, a Maryland corn farmer. “For many years, we have strongly asserted that the ethanol industry continues to improve and those productivity gains should be taken into consideration. With the simple justification offered for the analysis, USDA made a great step forward in showing its growing appreciation for the advances made in ethanol production and, thus, the ever-increasing benefit it offers Americans.”

While USDA estimates for corn use in ethanol production were lowered by 50 million bushels, the overall drop was partially offset by higher than expected production over the winter months. The demand decline was more than offset by projected increases in demand for corn from the export and feed and residuals markets of 50 million bushels each.

Projected ending stocks were lowered by 50 million bushels in light of the other adjustments. Average farm price estimates were raised by five cents at the midpoint to $3.50 to $3.90 per bushel.

USDA Gives Biomass Energy Development $8.7 Mil Boost

usda-logoUp to $8.7 million in federal funding is being made available for next-generation bioenergy development in biomass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is funding the bioenergy research and education efforts and will be publishing the final rule for a program that provides incentives for farmers and forest landowners interested in growing and harvesting biomass for renewable energy.

“USDA’s support for innovative bioenergy research and education supports rural economic development, reduces carbon pollution and helps decrease our dependence on foreign energy,” said [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack. “These investments will keep America moving toward a clean energy economy and offer new jobs and opportunities in rural communities.”

USDA will publish the final rule on the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) in tomorrow’s Federal Register. BCAP provides up to $25 million each year in financial assistance to owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forest land who wish to establish, produce, and deliver biomass feedstocks to a qualifying energy facility. The rule includes modifications to cost sharing, eligible types of biomass and other definitions. Stakeholders are encouraged to visit www.regulations.gov to review program details and provide comments during a 60-day public comment period. Comments are due by April 28, 2015. The full program will resume in 90 days on May 28, 2015. Additional information on application dates will be announced this spring. For more information on the program, visit the web at www.fsa.usda.gov/bcap.

USDA is also looking for applications for research and education grants through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), a joint program through NIFA and the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass, increase the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products to help replace the need for gasoline and diesel in vehicles, and diversify our energy portfolio.

USDA Secretary Returns to Commodity Classic

classic14-vilsack-stageU.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will visit the Commodity Classic next week for the sixth year in a row to address the annual convention and trade show for corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers. The secretary will deliver a keynote address to several thousand farmers and ag allies during the event’s General Session on Friday, Feb. 27, in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We’re thrilled to be welcoming Secretary Vilsack back to Commodity Classic,” said National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling. “With so much going on in our nation’s capital that impact their lives, the audience will be eager to get his report on the top issues facing our growers, such as trade and the farm bill. He always provides an experienced, deep-inside-Washington perspective.”

The 20th annual Commodity Classic takes place Feb. 26-28, 2015, at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Ag Secretary Stresses Biofuels Support at AFBF

afbf15-vilsack-stallmanReal farmers from around the country had a chance to ask Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack questions during an informal town hall-style meeting at the American Farm Bureau convention this week in San Diego.

The last question he took was from a South Dakota farmer who asked about continuation of strong biofuels policy in the United States. Vilsack detailed his continued support for the industry, particularly in the area of exports. “I am a firm believer in the future of the biofuels industry,” he said. “Ethanol production is at record levels…we’re now beginning to see great interest in the export market, not just for ethanol but also for dried distillers grains.”

Beyond the Renewable Fuel Standard, Vilsack said USDA is working hard to encourage the Defense Department to use more biofuels. “They are scheduled this year to begin a process of buying hundreds of millions of gallons of biofuels for jets and ships,” he said.

The last point the secretary made was on the need to update the research on ethanol in particular, especially when it comes to indirect land use. “A lot of the push back to the industry is based on studies that took place 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and there have been enormous increases in productivity of American farmers, that basically suggest the indirect land use calculations are not as accurate as they need to be,” he said.

Listen to the secretary’s comments on biofuels here: Secretary Vilsack at AFBF on biofuels


2015 AFBF Convention photo album

USDA Looks to the Forests for Renewable Energy

usda-logoHarvesting biomass from forests is not only helping those forests’ health, it’s helping the country achieve energy independence. This news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) has removed 200,000 tons of biomass that could have been a fire risk and was turned into biofuels.

“This initiative helps to retrieve forest residues that are a fire risk, but otherwise are costly to remove,” said [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack. “In just three months, working with private partners across the country, the program helped to reduced fire, disease and insect threats while providing more biomass feedstock for advanced energy facilities.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency administered the program earlier this year. Eligible farmers, ranchers or foresters participating in BCAP received a payment to partially offset the cost of harvesting and delivering forest or agricultural residues to a qualified energy facility. Up to $12.5 million is available each year for biomass removal.

This past summer, 19 energy facilities in 10 states participated in the program.

USDA Looks to Get Ethanol from Kudzu

kudzu1It might be the scourge of the south, but kudzu could become the next feedstock for biofuels.

“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” says Lewis Ziska with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS). “One of the possible potential benefits of kudzu is the roots are high in starch, and it may be a potential biofuel.”

Ziska says the USDA is working with the University of Toronto and Auburn University to look at the potential of kudzu roots. Since the USDA certainly doesn’t want to promote the growing of the weed that has overrun so many places in the south, he believes harvesting kudzu from abandoned farmland and other areas where it’s growing unchecked and easily harvested could end up producing as much, or even more, ethanol from an acre of the weed they want to eliminate as would be produced from an acre of corn.

“What we think we could do is to take the existing kudzu and convert into a biofuel for a win-win,” Ziska says.

You can listen to Ziska’s remarks here: Lewis Ziska, USDA ARS

USDA Working on Producing Butanol as Biofuel

qureshiU.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers are working turning barley straw and corn stover into biobutanol. This article from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) says the agricultural by-products could be a cost-effective feedstock for the green fuel.

Gallon for gallon, butanol has 30 percent more energy than ethanol and only around 4 percent less energy than a gallon of petroleum-based gasoline. [ARS chemical engineer Nasib] Qureshi has confirmed that both barley straw and corn stover can be converted to butanol via separate hydrolysis, fermentation, and recovery (SHFR) or by simultaneous saccharification, fermentation, and recovery (SSFR). In SSFR, releasing the plant sugars, fermenting them to butanol, and recovering the butanol are combined into a single operation that is performed in a single reactor.

In a recent study, Qureshi’s team used a process called gas stripping to “harvest” butanol fermented during SSFR. They obtained a final butanol yield that was 182 percent of the yield obtained from a control study that used glucose.

Using the same protocols, the scientists were able to ferment over 99 percent of the sugars in pretreated corn stover. This resulted in butanol yields that were 212 percent greater than yields observed from the controls, and 117 percent greater than the butanol yields from the barley straw.

In the corn stover-to-butanol process, the researchers are using vacuum technology instead of gas stripping to simultaneously recover butanol during fermentation. This new process released more than 97 percent of the stover sugars, making them available for fermentation.

More Corn for Ethanol

usda-logoIn the new World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate, USDA has increased the amount of corn forecast to be used to make ethanol and co-products such as the livestock feed distillers grains.

Corn used in ethanol production is projected 25 million bushels higher at 5.15 billion bushels for the 2014-15 marketing year. The reason is a reduction in expected sorghum use for ethanol and the strong pace of weekly ethanol production reported so far for the marketing year.

In the November crop forecast, USDA slightly lowered corn production this year to 14.4 billion bushels, with yields now expected to average 173.4 bushels per acre. If realized, this will still be the highest yield and production on record for the United States.

“This is positive news for the market overall as we’re expecting demand to rise to meet these record yields,” said American Farm Bureau Deputy Chief Economist John Anderson. “An estimated increase in ethanol production should also help to absorb this year’s bumper crop.”

The drop in the national production estimate for corn seems to be coming from traditionally high-yield states that are now seeing lower estimates this month, Anderson said. The Iowa yield estimate was shaved by two bushels per acre, and Minnesota’s came down by five.

The main reason for the slight drop in the corn forecast is a slow harvest and weather challenges, that are now including heavy snow in the upper Midwest. The latest crop progress report shows Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and Indiana lagging behind the most in harvest, but significant progress was made in the last week so that the corn harvest nationwide now stands at the five year average of 80 percent.

Biodiesel Ingredient Maker Gets State, Fed Incentives

ia-flag1An Iowa company that will make a key ingredient for biodiesel is getting some important loans, loan guarantees and tax incentives from the state and federal governments. This article from the Mason City (IA) Globe Gazette says New Heaven Chemical will get $128,000 in state loans and $402,000 in tax incentives, along with the chance for a U.S. Department of Agriculture $5 million loan guarantee, for the company’s plant at the Manly Terminal.

The Manly plant will produce sodium methylate, which is used to turn fat and oil into biodiesel.

Completion is expected by the end of the year. Startup is set for January.

New Heaven’s plant will bring money into the county, [Worth County Supervisor Ken] Abrams said.

“It’s gonna get jobs and people here,” he said.

County officials are expected to sign the contract later this week.

USDA Researchers Advance Advanced Ethanol

usda-logoResearchers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are making advancements on an advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol. This article from the USDA says the scientists at the Bioenergy Research Unit in Peoria, Illinois, have recently completed studies on multiple approaches that could help streamline cellulosic ethanol production.

In one study, a team led by ARS chemical engineer Bruce Dien looked at using switchgrass, a perennial grass native to the prairie, for ethanol production. The team concluded that biomass producers could optimize cellulosic ethanol production by planting Kanlow variety—a lowland ecotype—and harvesting at either mid-season or post frost. Results from this study were published in Environmental Technology in 2013.

ARS chemist Michael Bowman led another study of switchgrass xylans, which is challenging to convert to sugars with enzymes because of its complex chemical structure. Bowman determined that structural features of xylan remained the same as the plant matures, even though the amount of xylan changed with maturity. This is good news for biorefiners, because it suggests that they can use the same biomass hydrolyzing enzymes to break down xylans in all switchgrass biomass, no matter when the crop is harvested. Results from this study were published in Metabolites in 2012.

The article also gives progress reports on work with microorganisms needed to ferment xylose—molecules that make up xylans—into ethanol and promising field trials with a yeast strain that grew almost four times faster than other strains that contained XI enzymes and one that could produce ethanol at significantly greater yields than other yeasts engineered to ferment xylose to ethanol.

Small Biodiesel Maker Closing Indicative of RFS Problem

yokayo1While the closing of one small biodiesel maker in California might not seem like big news, it’s certainly indicative of the problems facing the industry, big and small producers alike. This story from the Ukiah (CA) Daily Journal says that Yokayo Biofuels, which turned waste cooking oil into biodiesel, has closed.

[Kumar Plocher, Yokayo Biofuels’ CEO] says the biggest reason for their closure was due to a lack of government support both at the state and federal levels. He explains that the carbon credit programs, those where petroleum companies are required to buy a certain amount of renewable fuels, allowed his company to bank carbon credits, normally valued high based on demand. This year state and federal value levels were very low: the state’s due to tampering by global companies that flooded the market and at the federal’s due to the Obama administration and the EPA. “Every year the federal government is supposed to raise the requirement of renewable fuel that should be purchased. At the beginning of 2014, they did not do that; they kept it static. They waited until September to announce a tiny increase, and by that time the damage was done and carbon credits were worthless all year. Every mid-term election year, the dollar per gallon subsidy that goes to biofuels has been absent; they wait until after the election.”

Plocher’s complaint is a common one among advanced biofuel makers and their advocates this year. In fact, at the recent National Advanced Biofuels Conference & Expo, Michael McAdams, founder and president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, said the partnership between the federal government and industry has to have clarity and certainty, but that’s not been the case lately.

“What we haven’t had in the last two years is certainty for the people I represent in the advanced and cellulosic sector,” McAdams said.

Similarly, Bob Dinneen, CEO and president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), pointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimates that corn prices will hit an eight-year low because of the government’s failure to follow through on the promises made in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

“Indeed, today’s USDA report should be the closing argument in the debate over the 2014 RFS final rule,” Dinneen continued. “When farmers made their planting decisions for the 2014 season, they anticipated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House would continue to enforce the statutory RFS volumes. But in one fell swoop, the EPA’s proposed rule wiped away demand for 500 million bushels of corn and grain sorghum. Now, farmers are faced with corn prices below the cost of production and the risk of returning to an era of increased reliance on federal farm program payments.”

There is a little good news in all of this. Plocher was able to sell Yokayo Biofuels’ biodiesel assets to like-minded Simple Fuels.

USDA Increases Crop Forecast Again

il-harvest-14The harvest may be running a little slow right now, but the latest report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is calling for a bit more corn than expected a month ago, adding to the already record forecasts.

Corn production is now forecast at 14.5 billion bushels, up almost one percent from the previous forecast and four percent more than last year. Corn yields are expected to average 174.2 bushels per acre, up 2.5 bushels from the September forecast and 15.4 bushels above the 2013 average.

The bigger crop mean lower prices and USDA’s latest World Agricultural Supply Demand Estimate also released today. Corn supplies for 2014/15 are now projected at 15,736 million bushels, up 129 million from last month, while season average prices were lowered 10 cents to $3.10 to $3.70 per bushel. Corn used to produce ethanol, distiller’s grains and other co-products is projected at 5.125 billion bushels, while corn consumption for feed is estimated at 5.375 billion bushels.

Biomass-to-Biofuel Plant Gets USDA Loan Guarantee

coolplanetA Louisiana biomass-to-biofuel operation received a $91 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This news release from USDA says the agency will back the loan under the Biorefinery Assistance Program to finish building the Cool Planet plant at the Port of Alexandria in Louisiana.

The Cool Planet facilities will produce approximately 8 million to 10 million gallons of reformate per year at full capacity. Often referred to as a “drop-in” fuel, reformate is an ingredient in gasoline and jet fuel that can be added during the regular refinery process. Many biofuels, like ethanol, are fuel additives that are instead blended into a finished product to oxygenate fuel. Reformate enhances the energy content of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Pine chips will be the feedstock source for the Cool Planet facility, but the company can use almost any type of renewable cellulosic material.

Another benefit of Cool Planet’s facility is that it will produce biochar, a bioenergy byproduct that has been noted for its ability to sequester carbon and potentially reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

Google Ventures, BP, ConocoPhillips, GE, Exelon and NRG Energy are also kicking in on the project, in addition to USDA’s contribution. Cool Planet is putting $50 million in its own equity into the project.

More Corn in the Bins

usda-logoThere’s more corn in the bins than there was a year ago at this time. USDA’s newest Grain Stocks report shows 1.24 billion bushels of old crop corn in all positions as of September 1, up 50 percent from the same time last year. Of the total stocks, 462 million bushels of corn were stored on farms and 774 million bushels were stored off the farm, up 68 and 42 percent from the prior year, respectively. The U.S. corn disappearance totaled 2.62 billion bushels during June-August, up from 1.95 billion bushels during the same period last year.

il-harvest-14Meanwhile, the corn harvest nationwide is running behind average for this time of year and just a bit ahead of last year, but the crop continues to look good.

According to USDA, the condition of the corn crop remains 74% good to excellent, 60% of the crop is mature, and 12% was harvested as of Sunday. All states are behind normal pace in the harvest.

The Illinois Corn Growers Facebook page has been showcasing harvest photos from around the state, including this one here submitted by Jordan Miles.