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.

Funding for Renewable Energy Programs

usda-omannThe Energy Title in the 2014 Farm Bill included re-authorization of the Renewable Energy for America Program – or REAP – with funding for renewable energy projects.

USDA Rural Development Energy Coordinator Ron Omann says an additional 50-million dollars of mandatory funding and up to 20-million dollars of discretionary funding have been dedicated to REAP for fiscal years 2014 through 2018, and funding for this year and next are being combined. “We’re going to be putting both ’14 and ’15 monies together which amounts to $100 million total for projects,” said Omann. That includes funding for both the Renewable Energy System and Energy Efficiency Improvement Guaranteed Loan and Grant Program and the Energy Audit and Renewable Energy Development Assistance Grant Program.

Omann says they are working to simplify the application process. “Generally, we want to streamline it and make it less of a barrier to get into it,” he said, adding that they are implementing specific changes in the application process for projects of less than $80,000.

For those interested in applying for REAP funding, Omann says each state has its own template to help with the application process, but it helps to keep it small and simple.

Find out more about REAP here.

USDA Predicts Record Corn Crop

U.S. farmers are expected to produce more corn than last year, according to the latest USDA report out today.

The August Crop Production report finds that good growing conditions are expected to help growers bring in a record-high crop at 14.0 billion bushels of corn, up 1 percent from 2013 which was also a record at the time. Yields are expected to average 167.4 bushels per acre, which would be the highest yield ever for the United States. Objective yield data indicate the greatest number of ears on record for the ten largest corn producing states.

NCGA-LogoDue to the increased production, the average farm price was lowered a dime from its July estimate, to a range of $3.55 to $4.25 per bushel, which National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre says makes it important to keep demand moving forward. “Now is not the time for our federal policymakers to be cutting into the ethanol standard, imposing undue regulations or going slow on trade agreements,” said NCGA President Martin Barbre. “Our farmers are doing their part, working hard and smart on their farms to bring in a good crop. It’s time Washington removed obstacles and cleared a path so we can sell America’s biggest and most versatile crop at a good and fair price.”

growth-energy-logoThe new World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate projects ending corn stocks to be 1.808 billion bushels, up 7 million bushels from July and the highest level of carryover stocks since 2005. “It is clear from this report that the food versus fuel debate over the U.S. renewable fuel policy can be put to bed,” said Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis. “It is time to stop attacking a homegrown American industry that is creating jobs, improving our environment and mitigating climate change, all while decreasing out dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels. It is time that the facts, not rhetoric drive the debate and today’s WASDE report should finally end these ridiculous claims. This report makes clear that the American farmer can fuel America and feed the world.”

Grains Council Working on Ethanol Exports

usgrainscouncil1The U.S. Grains Council (USGC) is working on promoting exports of U.S. ethanol through a partnership between USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service, Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).

“We’ve been working since late March, early April to determine which markets we’re going to do market assessments in and then next year we’ll shift into market development activities,” said Ashley Kongs, USGC manager of ethanol export program. The Grains Council is planning three regional market assessment programs this year, going to Japan and Korea in September, Latin America in November, and southeast Asia in early December.

Earlier this year, USGC participated in a trade mission to China with USDA Undersecretary Michael Scuse where they were able to discuss the possibility of ethanol exports to that country. “They visited with a Chinese ethanol plant and they had meetings with the National Energy Administration in China,” said Kongs. “Currently ethanol can only be sold in six designated markets in China for blending with fuel, but the group had discussions about the possibility of expanding ethanol use nationwide.” Kongs says while there are challenges in the Chinese market, the Grains Council sees great potential for the future to open the door for U.S. ethanol exports.

USGC continues to build on its success in promoting exports of the ethanol co-product distillers grains and will be again this year joining RFA in hosting the Export Exchange, an international trade conference focused on the export of U.S. coarse grains and ethanol co-products held every two years. Early registration for the event is open until July 31 and USGC and RFA members are eligible for discounted pricing.

USDA Promotes Rural Wood-to-Energy Projects

usda-logoRural energy projects from wood on the land where it’s grown are getting a boost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded more than $2.5 million in grants to develop wood energy teams in 11 states and an additional $1.25 million for nine wood energy projects.

“Renewable wood energy is part of the Obama Administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy,” [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack said. “Working with our partners, the Forest Service is supporting development of wood energy projects that promote sound forest management, expand regional economies and create new rural jobs.”

The federal funds will leverage more than $4.5 million in investments from USDA partners. Under the terms of the agreements announced today, private, state and federal organizations will work together to stimulate the development of additional wood energy projects in their states. Activities may include workshops that provide technical, financial and environmental information, preliminary engineering assessments and community outreach needed to support development of wood energy projects.

Grant recipients are from: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

In addition, USDA announced money to use woody material from the National Forest System lands, such as beetle-killed trees, to improve forest health and aid in wildfire prevention. More information is available on the Statewide Wood Energy Teams (SWET) and Wood to Energy Grant Recipients website.

USDA Renews Biomass Crop Assistance

Biomass producers and energy facilities can soon apply for assistance to turn renewable biomass materials into clean energy under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) reauthorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

usda-fsaThe Farm Bill authorizes $25 million annually for BCAP, requiring between 10 and 50 percent of the total funding to be used for harvest and transportation of biomass residues. Traditional food and feed crops are ineligible for assistance. The 2014 Farm Bill also enacted several modifications for BCAP, including higher incentives for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and narrower biomass qualifications for matching payments, among other changes.

Farm Service Agency
Administrator Juan Garcia says the initiative helps farmers and ranchers manage the financial risk of growing and harvesting energy biomass at commercial scale. “Investing in agricultural and forestry producers who cultivate energy biomass and supporting next-generation biofuels facilities make America more energy independent, help combat climate change and create jobs in rural America.”

“The potential to achieve transformational progress on biomass energy in rural America and generate tremendous economic opportunities is very promising,” added Garcia. “Energy crops occupy the space between production and conservation, providing opportunities for marginal land, crop diversity and more energy feedstock choices.”

The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers BCAP, will coordinate BCAP enrollments. Information on funding availability will be published in an upcoming Federal Register notice.