Idled plants restart, new plants on the way

By Luke Geiver | April 15, 2010
Add another term to the list describing the ethanol industry: emergence. This spring several plants have emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization proceedings. After a year in the reorganization process, Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. announced in March the company had successfully completed the process. Like many plants, Aventine cited unfavorable market conditions stemming from high corn prices and low petroleum costs as the main factor pushing the company into Chapter 11. Although the Pekin, Ill., Aventine facility was able to secure debtor-in-possession financing to remain operational, work on two other Aventine plants nearing completion was halted. Now, the Aurora, Neb., and Mt. Vernon, Ind., facilities will resume construction with a completion date set for fall.
"I am very optimistic about the ethanol industry and our success going forward," said Thomas Manuel, the company's new CEO and chief operating officer. "The ethanol industry has sound, long-term prospects, and we anticipate a strong rebound as the biofuels mandate continues to increase."

Another ethanol plant, Nebraska Corn Processing LLC based in Cambridge (formerly Mid America Agri Products), also reported good news. Only two months after purchasing the mothballed 44 MMgy facility, NCP has started producing ethanol again.

"We are running at full capacity and ethanol has been shipped out from the facility," said Beth Westemeyer, marketing manager for NCP. Many of the workers laid off before the plant was idled are back at the facility, and Westemeyer said bringing the plant back online was met with enthusiasm. "It couldn't have gone better actually, everyone in Cambridge is just so welcoming to us," she said. "It's a great town to have an ethanol plant in."

While Aventine and NCP both resumed operations at plants formerly idled in bankruptcy, a new North Carolina plant moved one step closer to full completion. Greg Carlisle from the Clean Burn Fuels LLC plant in Hoke County, N.C., said the plant is now receiving corn, the boilers have been fired and certified, the cooling tower commissioned and all major ducting completed. Although reaching full operational status has taken longer than first expected, Doug Archer, general manager of Clean Burn Fuels, noted the turn in the market as a positive time for the North Carolina plant to open.

In neighboring Georgia, American Process Inc. announced the official beginning of a pilot plant set to fractionate wood for cellulosic ethanol production. Partnering with Valero Energy Corp. and its subsidiary Diamond Alternative Energy, American Process will operate using its process called American Value Added Pulping. Bill Belling, vice president of business development for American Process, says the AVAP process will eventually be scaled up to commercial production and colocated at a pulp and paper mill. At a paper mill producing 500 tons of pulp per day, the company estimates it will produce up to 22.6 MMgy of ethanol. American Process is also developing a process it calls Green Power+. The biomass extraction process will be put to use at a planned prototype biorefinery in Alpena, Mich.

More pilot facilities are being developed in Florida. In a joint venture with the University of Florida, Buckeye Technologies Inc. and the Florida legislature, the Stan Mayfield Biorefinery cellulosic ethanol pilot plant held a groundbreaking ceremony in early March. The Florida legislature provided $20 million in funding and Buckeye provided the land at the Perry, Fla., site. Using an engineered E. coli bacterium made to break down nonfood materials, the plant will be operated by UF and is expected to be online in the spring of 2011. "We would not be here today without the exceptional foresight and support of those who realize, even in these trying economic times," UF President Bernie Machen said, "how important this work is to our future."

In UK developments, green investment firm Future Capital Partners has acquired a site in Grimsby, Northeast England, for a future ethanol plant, adding to the growing number of wheat-based ethanol facilities in the UK. The plant is set to go online in 2013. Due to the region's ability to produce and utilize a wheat-based feedstock, Dave Knibbs, CEO of Vireol, believes the UK has the ability to emerge as leading producer in Europe. "I think you could see some more plants here," Knibbs said. "We are the most efficient place to produce feed wheat in Europe. Our yields are better than anyone else's and there is room for more growth."