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.

Texas A&M Gets Grant for Biomass-to-Energy Project

swregionaldairy1Texas A&M is part of a nearly $16 million nationwide grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in part to fund projects for turning biomass into power. This article from the Stephenville (TX) Empire-Tribune says A&M’s AgriLife Research received money under the USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) to help fund a two-year program to demonstrate developing technologies for water purification, treatment and recycling and power generation using biomass at Tarleton State University’s Southwest Regional Dairy Center.

More than $780,000 has been allocated for the two-year project, which aims to demonstrate a proven water treatment and recycling technology developed by Global Restoration and a biomass conversion system developed by [AgriLife Research scientist Dr. Sergio Capareda, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M] and others at Texas A&M to produce electrical power.

Capareda says the technology demonstrations will convert dry manure produced by the milking herd at Tarleton’s dairy center into heat and electricity for on-site use. The project also plans to develop resource-conservation practices in handling wastewater and solids from animal manure at the facility while developing several spreadsheet-based monitoring systems.

“The Global Restoration group will take on the water coming out of the facility and the dairy’s lagoon, and purify the water so it may be recycled,” Capareda explained. “This generates large amounts of dry manure, which will be used by our system to generate heat and electrical power.”

Officials say the project could eliminate or at least reduce the size of open ponds, as well as offer another power and revenue stream for farmers.

Administration Offers New Renewable Initiatives

usda-logoAs USDA announced the investment $68 million in 540 new renewable energy and energy efficiency projects nationwide today, the White House offered new administrative actions to advance solar deployment and promote energy efficiency.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the USDA announcement while in North Carolina to highlight USDA’s investments in rural renewable energy projects being funded through USDA Rural Development’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Vilsack visited Progress Solar in Bunn, N.C., which received a $3.4 million REAP loan guarantee in 2012 for installation of a solar array.

At the same time, President Obama announced new executive actions to further advance the development of solar technologies across the country which includes commitments from a broad coalition of 50 public and private sector partners, including leading industry, community development organizations and housing providers in 28 states. “USDA is proud to play a key role in Obama Administration’s efforts to promote the use of solar technologies,” Vilsack said. “Of the REAP projects funded today, 240 projects are for solar investments of $5.2 million in grants and $55.3 million in loans.”

In North Carolina alone, Vilsack announced $55.3 million in new REAP program loan guarantees and grants for 22 solar energy projects. For example, USDA is awarding a $3 million loan guarantee to Broadway Solar Center, LLC to help finance a 5 megawatt solar array in Columbus County, a $4.9 million loan guarantee for a similar project in Hertford County and a $2.1 million guarantee for a project in Warren County.

Big Corn Crop Getting Bigger

usda-logoUSDA has increased its estimate of the corn crop again this month, building on already forecast record highs. Corn production is forecast at 14.4 billion bushels, up 3 percent from both the August forecast and from 2013 and yields are expected to average 171.7 bushels per acre, almost 13 bushels an acre higher than last year.

NCGA-Logo“It will be the fifth record crop that we’ve had in the last 12 years,” says National Corn Growers Association Vice President of Public Policy Jon Doggett, who commented on the crop during a during a Fuels America press call Thursday discussing the importance of EPA keeping the ethanol requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) going forward. “When the energy bill was passed in 2008, there was a challenge to the corn industry to produce the corn, and we have produced the corn,” he said, adding that farmers have done it so well that prices have fallen back below cost of production.

“The American farmer has done it again!” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). “The innovation and rapid technology adoption we’ve seen in the corn sector over the past decade has been nothing short of astounding. The American farmer has again risen to the challenge to meet all demands for feed, food and fuel.”

RFANewlogoAs harvest ramps up in fields across the country, corn demand from the ethanol sector is ramping up as well. Dinneen notes that DOE projects 2014 ethanol production will be 14.3 billion gallons. “A decade ago, who would have dreamed that 14 billion bushels of corn and 14 billion gallons of clean-burning, domestically-produced ethanol would be the reality in 2014?,” he said.

Dinneen added that EPA’s proposal to reduce the 2014 RFS requirement for “renewable fuel” from 14.4 billion gallons to 13.01 billion gallons would effectively reduce demand for corn by some 500 million bushels, at a time when corn stocks are rising and prices are slumping to levels below the cost of production. “Now is not the time to artificially constrain demand for corn and tie the hands of the American farmer,” Dinneen said, urging EPA to “finalize a rule that returns the RFS to its intended trajectory.”

Waste-to-Biodiesel Jet Fuel Project Gets Loan Guarantee

Fulcrum BioEnergy logoA company that plans to turn municipal waste into renewable jet fuel has received a government loan guarantee for the project. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the $105 Million loan guarantee provided through the Biorefinery Assistance Program for Fulcrum Sierra Biofuels, LLC to build a biorefinery to produce jet fuel from municipal solid waste.

“This represents a huge step forward in the development of clean, renewable, job-creating American fuels,” Vilsack said during a speech at the National Clean Energy Conference. “The nation is entering a new energy age that will make us more energy independent, cut carbon pollution and strengthen our economy, especially in rural communities where clean fuels will be produced.”

USDA is awarding Fulcrum a $105 million Biorefinery Assistance Program loan guarantee through Bank of America, N.A. to construct a facility in McCarran, Nev., to convert municipal solid waste to biodiesel jet fuel. USDA Rural Development’s loan guarantee represents less than half of the $266 million project cost. The plant is expected to produce 11 million gallons of fuel annually.

This is the first loan guarantee USDA has made for the production of bio jet fuel.

Last month, we told you how Fulcrum got investment backing from China’s Cathay Pacific Airways and negotiated a long-term supply agreement with Fulcrum for an initial 375 million U.S. gallons of sustainable aviation fuel over 10 years… about 2 percent of the airline’s current fuel consumption.

USDA is working on three more loans for biorefineries in Iowa, North Carolina and Oregon, turning woody biomass, municipal solid waste and energy grasses into renewable fuels.

USDA Develops Switchgrass with Bigger Yield, More Biofuel

libertyResearchers working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have developed a variety of switchgrass that produces bigger yields and more biofuel. Rob Mitchell with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Nebraska gives credit to retired geneticist Ken Vogel who developed the Liberty variety of switchgrass.

“He was able to identify an upland type and a lowland type that had similar genetics so they were able to be crossed. He made greenhouse crosses and then took those crosses to the field and right away saw a real big increase in biomass production,” Vogel says.

Field testers in Nebraska and Wisconsin noticed that not only were they getting more biomass, but they were also getting more biofuel out of the biomass produced, in addition to good stand establishment and winter survivability… key points for the Upper Midwest where Mitchell expects the Liberty variety to be grown for biofuels.

“I anticipate that Liberty is going to be at its best in that Central Plains and Midwestern region. It probably won’t go much further south, because they really don’t deal with winter hardiness issues in the southern U.S. like we do in the Central Great Plains and the Midwest,” he said.