Attract a Megaproject to a Community Near You

Advanced biofuel projects present significant economic development opportunities.
By Mark Yancey | March 13, 2015

With cellulosic ethanol plants developed by Abengoa, IneosBio, Poet-DSM, Dupont Cellulosic Ethanol currently or soon to be in commercial operation, and companies such as American Process, Chemtex, Enerkem, Fiberight, Sweetwater Energy, and others poised to enter the market, the production of advanced biofuels is expected to accelerate in the future. These second-generation biofuels are generally a fuel additive like ethanol, but made from plant materials other than corn starch. The cellulosic or advanced biofuel can be ethanol, butanol, jet fuel biodiesel or renewable diesel, to name a few.

What resources are needed to attract one of these mega-projects to your community? First and foremost is the feedstock—the organic material or biomass that will be converted into a biofuel. Common feedstocks for advanced biofuels include corn stover, rice straw, switchgrass and miscanthus, among other energy crops and crop residues. Woody biomass, urban wood waste and even garbage (municipal solid waste) are also good candidates. The accompanying biomass resource map published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows concentrations of crop, forest and mill residues, plus urban wood wastes by county within the U.S. As you can see, there are very large amounts of biomass available within the U.S., except in very mountainous or arid areas.

How Much Feedstock?
The available feedstock needed to manufacture biofuel depends on the feedstock type and the conversion technology used. Theoretical yields of ethanol from a biochemical process for various types of biomass are shown in the accompanying table. A corn stover ethanol plant with a yield of 80 gallons per dry ton of stover (about 70 percent of theoretical) would require 12,500 dry tons of stover for each million gallons of ethanol produced. A 25 MMgy corn stover-to-ethanol plant will require 312,500 dry tons of stover each year (about 850 tons per day).

On average, the dry matter weight of a corn plant is split equally between the grain and stover. Many counties in the Corn Belt produce more than 20 million bushels of corn each year, yielding about 476,000 dry tons of stover.  While it is not advisable to remove all of the stover from a corn field, two or three high-corn producing counties could easily supply enough corn stover feedstock for a 25 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant. At a delivered price of $70 per dry ton, the stover feedstock for one such facility would create over $20 million in direct economic impact. Similar scenarios are possible for other crop residues, woody biomass, energy crops and other biomass feedstocks appropriate for a given area.

While there is plenty of biomass available for the production of advanced biofuels in most areas, the logistics and cost of delivering large quantities of biomass to a plant are still being debated. The U.S. DOE has said the success of the U.S. bioenergy industry relies on many factors, “including a reliable, adequate supply of high-quality biomass, available at a cost that enables meeting business profitability targets.” DOE is supporting the development of a logistics system concept that incorporates distributed biomass preprocessing depots located near biomass production sites. Processing technologies such as milling or densification can reduce variability early in the feedstock logistics chain.

The biomass depot concept is gaining acceptance in the private sector. Ethanol Producer Magazine reported that one such company, Chip Energy, broke ground in mid-2013 on a biomass recycling and pelletizing plant. Once complete, the prototype plant will be capable of producing 100 tons per day of densified biomass from a variety of feedstocks, including wood waste, purpose-grown energy crops, and agricultural residues. Several biomass depots could be built to support an advanced biofuels plant in your community.

Most communities have the other resources required to attract an advanced biofuels project—a trainable workforce, water, natural gas and electricity. Large advanced biofuels projects may also need access to rail or barge to ship products to more distant markets.

Another local resource that can be very critical to attracting an advanced biofuels project to your community is human capital, defined as the knowledge, talents, skills, abilities, experience, intelligence, training, judgment and wisdom possessed individually and collectively by individuals in a community. There are many successful biofuel plants in the U.S. that came to be because of a local project champion—an individual or individuals that worked hard to bring that project to their community.

Economic development agencies can spearhead or be the catalyst for an advanced biofuels project. A feasibility study done early on can document the biomass resources available in your area and match the resource to the appropriate technologies and products. This will give you a head start on developing a viable business concept and creating local interest in the project.  Developing a large advanced biofuels project will not be easy, but the path is fairly well-established, based on past successes.

Author: Mark Yancey
Vice President, Project Development
 BBI International