Fungus Could Aid Ethanol Production

A fungus capable of breaking down cotton and other fibers could hold the key to improvements in the production of biofuels.

Biofuel FungusResearchers led by Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute announced this week that the genetic sequence of the fungus Trichoderma reesei has uncovered important clues about how the organism breaks down plant fibers into simple sugars.

The fungus is best known for eating through uniforms and canvas tents during World War II but that appetite could mean a more efficiently and cost effective way to convert corn, switchgrass and even cellulose-based municipal waste into ethanol.

“The sequencing of the Trichoderma reesei genome is a major step towards using renewable feedstocks for the production of fuels and chemicals,” said Joel Cherry, director of research activities in second-generation biofuels for Novozymes, a collaborating institution in the study. “The information contained in its genome will allow us to better understand how this organism degrades cellulose so efficiently and to understand how it produces the required enzymes so prodigiously. Using this information, it may be possible to improve both of these properties, decreasing the cost of converting cellulosic biomass to fuels and chemicals.”

The research paper was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Monday.

Algae-based Biodiesel Makers Getting Closer to Marketable

For a while, we’ve been telling you about one of the hottest trends in the biodiesel business: turning algae into biodiesel.

petgreensola.gifThis entry from C|’s Green Tech Blog says that at least three companies are close to making the green pond scum into green fuel with even more close on their heels. Florida-based PetroAlgae wants to test a commercial algae-biodiesel system next year, while GreenFuel Technologies and Solazyme (both previously featured on this blog… GreenFuel on October 3, 2007 and Solazyme as recently as last April 17th) say they’re close to commercial applications as well. In addition California-based LiveFuels has a target of 100 million gallons of biodiesel from algae in the next two years. All of this is very good news for the very green fuel source:

These companies are pursuing algae because its potential as a fuel is so promising: it’s a non-food crop, removes large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, and grows fast.

Algae has a relatively high energy density compared to soybeans, which means more soy on more land needs to be planted for the same amount of fuel yield.

“What’s happening is there has been more focus recently on the food-versus-fuel debate, more focus on the price of feedstock, and more understanding that using an agricultural-based crop as a fuel is not sustainable,” said Michael Weaver, the CEO and co-founder of Seattle-area algae start-up Bionavitas. “We’re seeing that reflected in the marketplace.”

Experts admit that algae is not a panacea for all the issues facing biodiesel. It’s still an experimental process, and just like any new venture, the article points out there have been some growing pains. But many agree that it will be just a matter of time before the non-food algae becomes a major player in the biodiesel market.

Biodiesel Helping Food and Feed Prices

So often lately, we’ve heard from biofuels naysayers who make all kinds of outrageous charges about how biodiesel and ethanol are pushing prices for human and livestock food through the roof. Too many times those complaints are coming from folks in the agriculture community, especially cattle and hog producers. But some are starting to recognize that biodiesel could actually help the price of livestock feed.

Recently at a hearing before the Missouri House’s Transportation Committee on a pending 5 percent biodiesel mandate in the Show-Me State, members of the Missouri Dairy Association spoke up about the benefits of the green fuel:

“The Missouri Dairy Association supports biodiesel and this bill,” said [executive director Dave] Drennan. “As more soybeans are crushed to meet the demands of biodiesel producers, more soybean meal is made available to livestock producers in greater quantities. Affordable feed is important to maintaining any dairy operation. By increasing the supply of soybean meal, biodiesel helps dairy producers keep costs down.”

High fuel prices have also impacted dairy prices. According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, 85 percent of all products that are produced and purchased in the state are shipped by diesel-powered trucks. Despite local dairy production, Missouri is a milk-deficit state and imports 1.7 billion pounds of milk from other states each year.

“If you put that much milk in tanker trucks end-to-end, the line would stretch westward from downtown St. Louis past Salina, Kansas,” said Drennan. “We are talking millions of dollars in transportation costs alone. We could put that money to work in Missouri if we could grow our dairy industry and use more biodiesel.”

Research from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri says that while soybean oil prices have been strengthened by biodiesel production, the process has meant more soybean meal, and thus, lower prices for the livestock feed.

So the next time someone tries to blame biodiesel for the high cost of feed, you’ll have one more fact… and another group of livestock producers… to prove them wrong.

Cellulosic Ethanol Start Up Reports Growth

A pioneer in the development of next-generation cellulosic ethanol and high-performance specialty enzymes is reporting record growth and advancement towards the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol.

Verenium PlantMassachusetts-based Verenium Corporation reports that total revenues for the quarter ended March 31, 2008 were $15.2 million compared to $11.3 million for first quarter of 2007.

Verenium CEO Carlos Riva says he is encouraged by the overall results and achievements of the first quarter. “As planned, our demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol facility entered the start-up phase and is proceeding on schedule despite significant cost escalation and labor shortages being experienced across the energy sector,” said Riva in a statement.

“We are at a transformational time for both the next-generation biofuels industry and Verenium, as the world is now actively seeking alternate sources of ethanol, particularly those derived from cellulosic biomass,” added Riva.

Verenium operates an R&D cellulosic ethanol pilot plants in Jennings, Louisiana and has entered the start-up phase at its 1.4 million gallon per year demonstration-scale facility. In addition, the company’s process technology has been incorporated into BioEthanol Japan’s 1.4 million liter-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Osaka, which is the world’s first commercial-scale plant to produce cellulosic ethanol from wood construction waste.

Opposition to Ethanol Waiver Demand

Two dozen Republican Senators, including presidential candidate John McCain, are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to waive the Renewable Fuels Standard they just passed as part of the energy bill in December in an effort to cut food prices. Other senators disagree.

HarkinSenate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa says the request would cut short the promise of biofuels for our nation’s energy security and is without merit. He says that “singling out increased biofuels production and use in the United States, European Union and other countries as the chief cause of higher world food prices is an over-simplification of the problem.”

ThuneSouth Dakota Senator John Thune says the call for a waiver from the national ethanol mandate due to higher food prices is simply “misguided.”

“We have an opportunity here to become more energy independent and ethanol has played a big role in that process,” Thune says. “I think if the EPA were to go back on our commitment to renewable energy it would be a misguided policy for the country.”

“It’s convenient right now to make ethanol the whipping boy for food prices when in fact oil prices have a lot more to do with the high price of food than the price of corn does,” Thune said. “It’s very fashionable right now to attack ethanol and everybody seems to be piling on.”

Renewable Fuels Association president Bob Dinneen says cutting ethanol production would have the opposite effect intended by the Senators – it would actually increase food prices by driving the price of gasoline even higher.

“If you take 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol off the market today, the impact on gasoline prices would be significant,” Dinneen said.

Economist John Urbanchuk of LECG estimates that an ethanol waiver “would add about $1.10 to the price of a gallon of gasoline in the short term because you’ve got to go out and replace that 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol.”

Florida Requires Ethanol Use

Despite all the outcry about ethanol in the media, Florida is bucking the trend and establishing a renewable fuel standard, requiring ethanol to make up 10 percent of Florida’s total fuel supply by 2010.

FL Farm to FuelFlorida’s comprehensive “Green Energy” bill passed by the 2008 Florida Legislature last week includes a variety of other initiatives, prompted by Governor Charlie Crist, who praised the legislature for their work on the bill. “I’m very, very proud of the House and Senate in these difficult times they continue to move Florida forward and keep Florida green and make it even better,” Crist said.

There is a strong push in Florida to move toward producing more alternative crops for biofuels. The driving force behind that push has been Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson who says they are looking at a wide variety of alternative energy crops, especially those that can be grown using less water. “We have the capability of being on the ground first with real fuel,” he said. “Agriculture needs to be at the table when that process is put together.”

Bronson estimates that within ten years, Florida can produce three billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel, and he believes that can happen without impacting food production in the state. “What we need to do is keep our food production up and grow as a second or third crop these fuel crops,” he said.

Bronson’s department is busy planning the third annual Florida Farm to Fuel summit, which will be held July 30th – August 1st in Orlando. Among the topics that will be addressed is renewable fuels initiatives in the new state energy bill, the federal energy bill, and the farm bill and how Florida can play a role in meeting the demand.

Iowa State Study Finds Ethanol Lowers Fuel Prices

card.jpgClaims that ethanol production drives up gas prices don’t hold up after a study from Iowa State University. ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development has taken a look at the impact of ethanol production on U.S. and regional gas prices and found that ethanol production actually lowers prices at the pump.

Using pooled regional time-series data and panel data estimation, we quantify the impact of monthly ethanol production on monthly retail regular gasoline prices. This analysis suggests that the growth in ethanol production has caused retail gasoline prices to be $0.29 to $0.40 per gallon lower than would otherwise have been the case. The analysis shows that the negative impact of ethanol on gasoline prices varies considerably across regions. The Midwest region has the biggest impact, at $0.39/gallon, while the Rocky Mountain region had the smallest impact, at $0.17/gallon. The results also indicate that ethanol production has significantly reduced the profit margin of the oil refinery industry. The results are robust with respect to alternative model specifications.

POET Cancels Construction of Ethanol Plant

poet.gifA long delay in permitting has led POET, the world’s largest producer of ethanol, to cancel plans for construction of a new facility in Glenville, MN. Larry Ward, Vice President of Project Development for POET, says permitting has delayed the project for over a year.

“When we selected Glenville for a second ethanol production facility, we believed that we would be holding its grand opening sometime around today,” said Larry Ward, Vice President of Project Development for POET. “Early discussions with the appropriate authorities indicated there wouldn’t be any unusual permitting concerns due to the plant’s close proximity to another POET plant. However, permitting has delayed the project by more than a year and has caused a significant amount of additional costs making it less attractive than other potential projects in the Eastern Corn Belt. Our existing plant in Glenville continues to perform very well and it’s still possible that we may construct a second plant in that area sometime in the future, but it likely won’t be in the next few years.”

POET has opened three new ethanol production facilities in the Eastern Corn Belt states of Indiana and Ohio over the past seven months and will open three more in those states before the end of the year. “We also have four additional sites in the eastern Corn Belt that are in some stages of due diligence and we continue to be excited about the possibilities for increased production in those areas,” said Ward.

Seminole Electric Looking for Renewable Energy

se.pngSeminole Electric Cooperative Inc. is exploring ways to incorporate renewable energy. The Tampa, Florida-based company is requesting proposals for potential renewable energy sources.

The Florida generation and transmission cooperative is seeking up to 250 megawatts of renewable energy to help meet its member systems’ growing demand and to diversify its resource portfolio. Seminole is not charging a fee for proposal submission. Proposals are due by June 13, 2008.

Seminole is the wholesale power supplier for 10 electric distribution co-ops. Its member co-ops together have nearly 900,000 retail consumers and provide electricity to an estimated 1.7 million individuals and businesses, located across 46 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Seminole is seeking any type of renewable resource located in or planned for construction in Florida, including baseload resources designed for continuous operation, and intermediate/peaking type resources. Proposed renewable resources must be at least one megawatt in maximum generating capacity.

Seminole will consider all renewable technologies including generation facilities using wind, hydrogen, waste heat, geothermal, ocean energy, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, landfill gas, biomass, municipal solid waste, anaerobic digesters, and hydropower fuel sources.

Seminole’s renewable energy RFP is open to all providers including but not limited to independent power producers, renewable energy providers, exempt wholesale generators, qualifying facilities as defined under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, and electric utilities.

EPIC Speaks Out Against Ethanol Scapegoating

e.pngThe Ethanol Promotion and Information Council has gathered data from multiple sources that debunk claims that America’s renewable fuels are a large player in soaring food prices. Toni Nuernberg, the Executive Director of EPIC wants to spread the word that changing the nation’s renewable fuels standard is not the answer to driving down global food costs.

Recent calls to reduce the renewable fuels standard (RFS) seem like an easy and immediate fix to world food shortages. However, the factors influencing global food prices and supplies are a result of converging global production and demand issues that go far beyond corn-based ethanol. Changing U.S. energy policy will not provide short-term relief on the food supply and decrease food prices as many expect. In fact, relaxing the renewable fuels standard mandate actually may escalate food prices now and in the future by driving fuel prices even higher.

Across the country, including 10 percent ethanol in gasoline has held the price per gallon down by $.15 to $.45 depending on the region of the country, as highlighted in recent studies in Missouri. Reducing ethanol requirements by 50 percent removes 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol from the fuel supply. This will reduce the total fuel supply, causing transportation, fertilizer, fuel, packaging and other food production costs to continue to increase, further inflating the price of food.

Long-term, repealing or suspending the 2007 Energy Policy Act is unnecessary, as technologies in use today and on the horizon will enable American farmers to increase productivity per acre to meet demands for food and this mandate, potentially with the same or fewer inputs than used today.

For many, it is easy to look past the primary factor wreaking havoc with the global economy — namely exorbitant oil prices which have increased from $35 in 2005 to more than $110 today — nearly 300 percent.

Globally, today’s energy prices are a disincentive to food production, as third world countries simply can’t afford to develop agriculture systems and, therefore, their ability to feed themselves.

Corn-based ethanol, while not a silver bullet, is the foundation upon which the next generation of “advanced biofuels” is being built.

The industry is fueling research into cellulosic ethanol produced from feedstocks such as switch grass and other non-edible renewable biomass. Corn-based ethanol is a solution that is here now, available in our current infrastructure and making a difference in the price of fuel.

Former Ag Secretary Defends Ethanol

Former Secretary of Agriculture John Block can look at the food versus fuel issue from a number of angles. He ran the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Reagen from 1981-1986. He was executive vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers and wholesalers. He serves on the board of Friends of the World Food Program, a US-based non-profit organization dedicated to building support for the World Food Program and other hunger relief efforts. And he is an Illinois family farmer who produces both corn and hogs.

RFA Press Conference John BlockOn Wednesday, Block shared his perspective on food prices and ethanol with the media at the National Press Club.

“The first point I would make is, yes, biofuels have had some impact on the price of food, we can’t deny that,” Block said. “But it’s pretty small, it’s hard to figure out exactly what it is.”

That’s because this is a very complicated issue, Block says, which includes factors such as increased demand for animal protein in developing countries, crops affected by weather, speculation in the futures markets, weakness of the dollar, and oil. “I dare say we would not even be standing up here right now if oil was $20 a barrel, but it’s not, it’s $120 and its likely to stay in that range and it puts us in a position we had not been in before,” he said.

With so many factors involved, Block says it’s unreasonable to give biofuels a majority of the blame for higher food prices, especially internationally. “Because we are not shorting the market on grain,” he said. “We are exporting more grain than we ever have in history.”

The positive side to this Block says is that higher prices equals investment and that equals more food. “Over time, with good prices for farm products, the world is going to produce more food products.”

“I believe that biofuels have an important place,” Block concluded. “All of this is home-grown, it makes jobs for us in the United States and its a clean fuel – those are good, positive things.”

Listen to Block’s comments here: rfa-press-block.mp3

Ethanol Blender Pumps Gives Consumers Choices

A new partnership between the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council (SDCUC) is helping gas station retailers in South Dakota put in more ethanol blender pumps to let consumers with flex fuel vehicles have more options.

e-podcastThe edition of “Fill up, Feel Good” features comments from EPIC Director of Operations Robert White and SDCUC Executive Director Lisa Richardson about the new program, its goals, how it will work, and how it will benefit consumers.

The podcast is available to download by subscription (see our sidebar link) or you can listen to it by clicking here (5:00 MP3 File):

The Fill Up, Feel Good theme music is “Tribute to Joe Satriani” by Alan Renkl, thanks to the Podsafe Music Network.

“Fill up, Feel Good” is sponsored by the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council.

Ethanol Closer to Little Bo Peep

Is ethanol Little Bo Peep or the Ax Murderer?

RFA Press Conference Rick TolmanThat’s the question National Corn Growers CEO Rick Tolman presented to the media during a press conference in Washington DC on Wednesday, pointing to the front page article on ethanol and corn prices in the Washington Post as being the latest example of making ethanol out to be the ax murderer. “There’s a lot of misinformation, slanted information that is just inaccurate,” Tolman said. “While we do have some role in higher food prices in the corn industry, we are certainly closer to Little Bo Peep than the ax murderer.”

Tolman pointed out the importance of the US corn industry, the dramatic increases in yields and production and the fact that prices for petroleum products have a much greater impact on food prices than corn does.

“What do corn prices have to do with food riots in China and Pakistan and India over rice?” Tolman asked. “Absolutely nothing. There is no connection to rice production around the world with biofuels production in the United States. Absolutely none.”

Tolman blamed the disinformation in the media on a very clever marketing campaign by those with deep pockets. “If you want to know who the real ax murderer is slashing our grocery food budget, look at $4 a gallon gasoline, look at $120 a barrel oil,” Tolman said.

Listen to Tolman’s comments here: rfa-press-tolman.mp3

Renewable Energy Bill Passes Florida Legislature

A comprehensive energy bill has passed the Florida legislature, and now goes to the governor for an expected signature.

This story from the Orlando (FL) Sun-Sentinel says the measure has provisions specifically addressing renewable energy in the state:

crist.jpgThe bill, which addresses Gov. Charlie Crist’s call for policies that combat global warming, is made up of 112 sections that could dramatically increase the state’s investment in renewable energy. The House passed the energy bill unanimously Tuesday and the Senate passed the House bill by a vote of 39 to1 Wednesday.

Among the changes proposed, the bill would require state buildings to meet specific “green energy” standards. That’s expected to cost more during construction but save the state money in the long run by increasing energy efficiency.

The bill would allow state regulators to set goals for individual utilities on how much renewable energy they produce and to fine utilities that don’t meet the goals and reward them if they do. Regulators would be required to consider the effect of utility customers’ rates when setting the goals.

Passage gained the praise of Crist:

“I want to thank Senate President Ken Pruitt, House Speaker Marco Rubio, Senator Burt Saunders and Representative Stan Mayfield for their leadership in securing Florida’s green energy future,” Governor Crist said. “Today’s vote signifies a commitment to protecting Florida’s natural beauty and stimulating our economy, as well as reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”

The bill also assures accountability for the renewable energy with a state commission studying whether green fuels such as biodiesel, wind, and solar provide returns for the state’s investment in them.

GM Announces Second Cellulosic Ethanol Partnership

GMGeneral Motors and Mascoma Corporation of Massachusetts today announced a strategic relationship to develop cellulosic ethanol.

MascomaThe development is focused on Mascoma’s single-step biochemical conversion of non-grain biomass into low-carbon alternative fuels to help address increasing energy demand. It ties in with another partnership announced earlier this year with Coskata that uses a thermo-chemical process to make ethanol from non-grain sources.

“Taken together, these technologies represent what we see as the best in the cellulosic ethanol future and cover the spectrum in science and commercialization,” GM President Fritz Henderson said. “Demonstrating the viability of sustainable non-grain based ethanol is critical to developing the infrastructure to support the flex-fuel vehicle market.”

Mascoma has raised significant equity from venture capital investments and secured more than $60 million in state and federal grants, including the recent awarding of a $26 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Cellulosic biofuels represent next-generation renewable energy, and have the potential to reduce oil dependence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate regional economic development,” Mascoma Chairman and CEO Bruce Jamerson said. “Our transformational technology will allow us to combine the affordable non-grain biomass with low-cost conversion techniques to make ethanol more quickly, efficiently and economically than is possible with other biochemical methods.”

GM’s multi-dimensional involvement with Mascoma will include projects to evaluate materials and other fuels for specific engine applications as well as collaborating on Mascoma’s efforts to expand its commercialization projects globally, including promotion of increased biofuels distribution.