Sustainable certification for the ethanol process

FROM THE JULY ISSUE: Access to additional markets and plant efficiencies give bottom-line significance and meaning to the often-generalized term—sustainability.
By Luke Geiver | June 21, 2017

For most industries—ethanol production included—the practice of sustainability is a grey-area topic: It’s hard to define and even harder to put a value on. Gary DeLong, an Urbandale, Iowa-based, sustainability consultant and auditor who has traveled the world through his role at Degart Global, has a clear understanding of how sustainability can impact U.S. ethanol producers. “The idea of sustainability is always a good topic [for ethanol producers] to be involved in,” DeLong says. “Producers can play in a worldwide market if they have the right certifications.”

Although the current opportunity for U.S. producers to export to Europe is limited because of tariffs and the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive requirements on renewable energy sources and feedstocks, DeLong works with ethanol clients to help them understand the opportunities for exports into South American, Japanese or other overseas markets that require some form of sustainability certificate. He also works with ethanol clients focused on serving future markets that might open as soon as they are certified sustainable, including California’s. Based on DeLong’s experience and expertise on providing the appropriate certifications for the right markets all over the world, he says for U.S.-based ethanol producers, the value of sustainability all starts with the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification process.

Earning A Sustainability Certificate
The ISCC is a set of sustainability certification criteria developed by Germany. The ISCC group is a nonprofit and was formed to address the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive requirements that call for a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a verification system to ensure land use change has not occurred during the production of renewable energy. According to DeLong, there are currently more than 10,000 ISCC certification holders in the world and only two sets of other standards meet the same requirements of the ISCC. U.S. producers eyeing export markets in Europe have to become ISCC certified, and DeLong predicts those looking to serve the California market will, too.

The California Air Resources Board held meetings with the ISCC earlier this year to discuss the possibility of adopting or finding compatibilities between ISCC’s standards and CARB’s. As a possible indication of things to come, the ISCC set up an office last year in San Francisco. Although the discussions are still ongoing, DeLong says the two entities are a good match. 

Some ethanol producers in the U.S. are certified already. DeLong has worked with more than 10 to perform the auditing and approval process. The ISCC’s objective has three main elements: The feedstock used to produce a biofuel must meet land use requirements; workers linked to the feedstock and fuel production process must be paid fairly; and the biofuel product must provide a 50 percent GHG reduction when compared to standard gasoline blends.

During a three- to five-day period, a third-party auditor will visit the corn growers, the elevator or grain storage facilities and the ethanol production site. Farmers must sign a statement of conformity that signals their feedstock is in compliance with the requirements of the certification protocol. The farmers are not paid any extra to go through the process. “Farmers are always happy to participate,” DeLong says. “They are participating in marketing of corn and ethanol by going through the process.”

On average, nearly 90 percent of all feedstock providers participate in the process.

After the auditor gains the statement of conformity from the farmers, the next step takes place at the first gathering point of the feedstock, typically an elevator or warehouse. At this point in the process, the auditor must certify the chain of custody and the type of grain that will be sent to the ethanol plant. Next, the auditor must visit the feedstock conversion facility, or the ethanol plant, to once again verify the chain of custody and type of grain received. The auditing process utilizes a mass balance system, so an ethanol plant doesn’t need to separate grain that can be used for the certification process from other grain not being used in the ISCC process. The goal throughout the process is to provide a certifiable traceability of the grain used that results in a certain finished ethanol blend. The ISCC’s final ethanol blend is drier than that of the U.S. ASTM’s standard.

Following the conversion facility step, the auditor then meets with the biofuel supplier or marketer to certify the chain of custody of the biofuel once more. The supplier can then pass the certificate granted by the ISCC onto the buyer. “All along the way the idea is to keep track of the product before it arrives to places such as the Port of Rotterdam,” DeLong says. The third-party certification is required annually.

Producers that have participated to date have done so to keep their market opportunities open in the future. “They need to keep informed on the markets due to the fact that some may open up,” he says. In many cases, some plant rework has to be performed. “Tooling and revamping was needed. You need a drier ethanol product,” DeLong says. In some cases, his clients had to add molecular sieves to take more water out of ethanol product and give it a higher alcohol content.

For producers yet to be certified but interested in the process, the first step is to become informed about sustainability and what it means to be certified sustainable in different markets, DeLong says. Next, producers should get an understanding of what their particular biofuel product’s lifecycle GHG thresholds would be. After that, a discussion with a consultant or certification body is necessary to help the producer understand if the work, time and investment into the process is worth it for the chance to have access to certain fuel markets, DeLong says. Currently, 22 U.S. ethanol-related entities are on the ISCC’s list of certificate holders.

More Than One Meaning
ISCC certification isn’t the only path to sustainability. Mark Marquis, CEO of Marquis Energy, says sustainability for his production entity is measured in carbon intensity, but it also is viewed as an economic driver used to push down production costs. “Marquis continually evaluates technology to remain on the cutting edge in ethanol production and our sustainable investments allow us to meet efficient producer pathway status within the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Marquis said. To date, the company has worked to reduce its carbon footprint by investing in CO2 scrubbing, efficient steam generation systems and plant automation.

The plant’s automation system helps prevent errors and reduces the variability of process streams. Process automation also helps sustain production by preventing unforeseen downtime. “Reduced variability and increased operational efficiency improve our sustainability and bottom line,” Marquis says. Automation also is used to highlight how close the plant is to reaching key production indicators, he says.

The Marquis team places a major emphasis on sustainability of production and feedstock used—the company’s website even has its own tab devoted to the topic of sustainability. Marquis has been certified in the past and will continue to remain certified through the ISCC. Based on the goals of the Marquis team, certifications of sustainability such as the ISCC or others will continue to be of interest in the future to Marquis or producers looking to expand while they also look to expand their operations. “We believe in moving from being an ethanol producer to being in a biorefining mode, which is aimed at dividing comingled streams into new sources of revenue,” he says. “It’s our goal to have five sources of revenue (up from our current three) in the next five years.”

Author: Luke Geiver
BBI International Staff Editor

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The Certification Process
Information used by the third-party auditor to certify feedstock traceability:

• Statements of conformity from farmers supplying feedstock.

• Chain-of-custody verification of grain handling, conducted at the elevator or other first gathering point.

• Chain-of-custody verification and grain evaluation, conducted at the ethanol plant.

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Current and Former ISCC Certified U.S.-based Entities
Plymouth Energy LLC, Merrill, Iowa

Green Plains Inc., Omaha, Nebraska

Renewable Products Marketing Group, Shakopee, Minnesota

Lyondell Chemical Co., Houston, Texas

Alcotra North America Inc., Houston, Texas

Murex LLC Ltd., Texas City, Texas

Astra Oil Co. LLC, Houston, Texas

Arkalon Ethanol LLC, Liberal, Kansas

Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minnesota

Central Indiana Ethanol LLC, Marion, Indiana

Platinum Ethanol LLC, Arthur, Iowa

Lansing Ethanol Services LLC, Overland Park, Kansas

Poet Ethanol Products, Wichita, Kansas

Petrobras America Inc., Houston, Texas

Noble Americas Corp., Stamford, Connecticut

Arkalon Ethanol LLC, Liberal, Kansas

Lyondell Chemical Co., Houston, Texas

International Corp., Long Lake, Minnesota

M-Pact BioFuels LLC, Chesterfield, Missouri

Central Indiana Ethanol LLC, Marion, Indiana

Platinum Ethanol LLC, Arthur, Iowa

Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. LLLP, Benson, Minnesota

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