Commissioning a First-of-a-Kind Plant Takes Time

By Tom Bryan | October 11, 2013

This month, we catch up with four large-scale cellulosic ethanol plants, three of which are among the first in the world to finish construction.  These early-to-market producers are notably unique. Their technology platforms and production inputs are as dissimilar as their geographic locations and corporate structures. Nevertheless, their commonalities emerge thematically in this month’s feature lineup.  

Starting with our page-30 cover story, “A Waste-Filled Proposition,” we are introduced to the crucial role that waste-to-ethanol plants can play in mitigating a growing worldwide community need—waste diversion. Ineos New Planet BioEnergy LLC is getting paid to divert vegetative and wood waste from a space-constrained landfill in Florida, writes Sue Retka Schill, EPM senior editor. In the feature that follows, “Trash to Bio-Treasure,” Holly Jessen, EPM managing editor, reports on two other waste-to-ethanol producers: Enerkem in Alberta and Fiberight in Iowa. Again, we see that tipping fees are, or will be, paid to each producer by the cities supplying them with waste. While materials separation and waste conversion challenges are difficult beasts, taming them may deliver a huge prize. Landfills are simply running out of space and municipalities from all over the U.S. are expressing interest in Fiberight. Ineos, too, is getting “inquiries from all over the world.”

If the value proposition of waste diversion is the principal thread in this month’s issue, the challenge of commissioning novel industrial facilities is the second. Plant commissioning, put simply, is the process of assuring that all of the plant’s systems and components are designed, installed and functioning the way they’re supposed to. 

Retka Schill visited the Ineos Bio facility in person in August. She returned from Florida with new insight about how large chemical companies define and carry out plant commissioning. She informs us that the pre-startup “shakedown” that once took a new corn-ethanol plant a month may take a cellulosic ethanol plant a year or more. In Northern Italy, Beta Renewables—long done with construction—celebrated official plant opening on Oct. 8 (see photos on page 44). Like Ineos, Beta Renewables was in the tedious throes of commissioning for months. Up north, farther from the finish line, Enerkem is also approaching project completion but just entering its own commissioning process. 

The takeaway: Commissioning first-of-a-kind cellulosic ethanol plants is a meticulous, time-consuming process. Startup isn’t what it used to be, but neither are the stakes. If old feedstock and technology rules no longer apply to new ethanol plants, neither should old expectations about the pace of bringing the facilities on line.  

Tom Bryan