FEW: 25 years and counting

The longest running and most popular ethanol industry event in the world is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. EPM previews this year's FEW and flashes back to how the conference and the industry have evolved in the past quarter century.
By Kris Bevill | April 14, 2009
To say that the ethanol industry is not the same now as it was 25 years ago would be an understatement. To say that the industry is almost unrecognizable from what it was 25 years ago might be more accurate. In a quarter of a century the industry has inched its way from being "stills in the hills" to an annual production capacity of more than 9 billion gallons. During that time, ethanol has contributed to the nation's energy independence, revived rural communities and become a powerful force to be reckoned with among D.C. lobbyists.

The ethanol industry has continued to grow and evolve to meet the changing demands of the world it serves despite many challenges. Stability in a volatile industry can be hard to find, but there is one single event that for 25 years has held an annual spot on industry members' calendars.

BBI International will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo. The FEW will be held June 15-18 in Denver. In 1995, Mike and Kathy Bryan founded BBI International and hosted their first FEW. As Mike Bryan noted in his opening remarks to attendees at the 2007 FEW, "You know, the first Fuel Ethanol Workshop was held here in St. Louis in 1984, and I think there were between 38 and 40 people at the first Fuel Ethanol Workshop, and no exhibitors." In 1995, event drew 188 attendees and 13 exhibitors, and has since grown into the largest and longest-running ethanol conference in the world. More than 4,000 people and 500 exhibitors from around the world attended the 2008 FEW in Nashville, Tenn., and this year's conference is being heralded by organizers as a "landmark event," to celebrate 25 years of ethanol industry advancements.

Thousands of attendees and at least 500 exhibitors are expected to flock to the Colorado Convention Center in Denver to participate in the three-day event.

It's important to note that two co-located events will be added to this year's FEW agendathe 4th annual International Distiller's Grains Conference and the 2nd annual Advanced Biofuels Workshop. The IDGC is the largest distiller's grains event in the world and provides a bridge for buyers and sellers to connect and conduct business. Last year's event was held in September in Indianapolis and attracted more than 600 attendees and 140 distillers grains buyers from more than 30 countries. This year's conference will open with an evening reception June 14 and continue through the following day with a trade show and various breakout sessions.

The ABW was organized last year to address the need for more discussion about advanced biofuels as identified by the renewable fuels standard (RFS). Approximately 350 people attended the one-day event in Minneapolis. Attendees heard from experts on policy-related issues concerning advanced biofuels and the RFS, and learned more about the types of fuel that qualify for placement into the "advanced biofuels" category. Tom Bryan, vice president of content and communications for BBI International, says advanced biofuels is even more relevant this year because it's the first year that advanced biofuels must contribute to the total amount of renewable fuels consumed in the United States. The RFS calls for 600 million gallons of advanced biofuels to be blended into gasoline in 2009. Bryan expects hundreds of investors, project developers, engineering companies, technology providers, feedstock suppliers and policymakers to come together June 15 for the workshop.

BBI International decided to hold the FEW, IDGC and ABW under the same roof so attendees on a budget could participate in multiple events during one trip, Bryan says. The IDGC and the ABW will conclude on Monday, just in time for participants of those events to attend the FEW tradeshow opening that evening.

While the tradeshow provides an excellent forum for networking and business dealings, it is the sessions that spur much of the conversation on the tradeshow floor. In some ways, a look at the FEW agenda is a peek at the upcoming year's projects and changes for the industry. "It's our job to make sure that the FEW is continually relevant to the industry," Bryan says. Each year, the company organizes a steering committee of industry stakeholders who create the conference agenda based on their firsthand knowledge of issues of importance to the industry. The committee is composed of plant general managers, researchers, media personnel and industry lobbyists. Larry Russo, senior deployment manager for the U.S. DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Biomass Program, participated in the FEW steering committee this year and last year. Each year, FEW topics mirror what's happening in the industry at the time, he says. "This year we're looking at enhancing profitability versus a year ago when we were looking at expansion ideas," he says. "Money was available last year so producers were looking for more ways to improve or expand their plants. This year that money is not available so it will be more about maintaining status quo until things get better."

The availability of funding, or the lack thereof, could be an underlying theme of this year's event. Production costs, value-added profitability, financing and technology economics dictate much of the conference's agenda. The possibility for an E15 mandate, blend wall considerations, indirect land-use change, cellulosic ethanol and alternative fuels round out the list of topics predicted to be of great interest to attendees at the event.

The ability to maintain a pertinent agenda is important, but what really sets the FEW apart from other renewable fuel conferences is its focus on ethanol producers, according to Bryan. "They are really the lifeblood of the FEW," he says. "The show was developed for ethanol producers and we really want to keep that spirit alive. Without the producers the show would really be weakened." To acknowledge their vital role at the conference and as a way to commemorate the FEW's 25th anniversary, BBI is giving two free full-access passes to every ethanol plant currently operating or under construction in North America. "We're doing this not only because it's the 25th anniversary but also because we know producers are financially strapped at this time and have tighter travel budgets," Bryan says. He expects 800 producers to attend the conference. Russo believes the FEW is important for producers because it allows them to take the pulse of the industry. The opportunity for members of the industry to gather in one place to share ideas is important, he says. "Everybody's kind of in the same boat. You know, there's a lot of creative thinking going on and the more we can share that the more we can help the industry survive a downturn."

The ethanol industry has changed radically in the past 25 years and Bryan credits the conference itself for facilitating some of that change. "The FEW allows people in the industry to come together for a few days each year to share ideas and innovations," he says.

Kris Bevill is the editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at kbevill@bbiinternational.com or (701) 373-8044.