USDA on track to select biorefinery locations

By Kris Bevill | November 15, 2010
Report posted Nov. 19, 2010

On Oct. 21, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack presented a plan for his agency to assist in expanding the production and availability of biofuels in the U.S. One month later, USDA officials are working feverishly to accomplish Vilsack's lofty goals, which include assisting in the installation of 10,000 blender pumps within five years and financing and constructing five advanced fuels biorefineries in as many sections of the country.

A USDA senior official told EPM that the agency is on track to announce biorefinery locations by the end of the year. "We're serious about this," the official said. "We're really working hard. It feels like a lot of match-making." The goal of the USDA's biorefinery commitment is to prove first-of-a-kind advanced biofuels technologies in specific regions of the country. Biofuels supported by the project can be any advanced transportation fuel, including cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol or drop-in replacement fuels. Vilsack has previously specifically identified cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel as potential projects, however, because they are the only existing advanced biofuel options, the official said. "We know we can't hit our current goal of 36 billion gallons by 2022 if our current industry goes out of business," the official added.

Ideal locations for the USDA's biorefineries will be existing projects that already have an identified consumer base, biorefiner and feedstock. It's possible that a project which converts biomass to power could be selected for a USDA biorefinery because biomass-to-energy is a logical use for feedstock while the fuel production facility is being built, the official said. However, no biomass-to-power locations of that type have yet been identified. "Whatever makes the economics work out in the first year or so is what we will want to do," the official said. "Mostly, we're spending our time working with folks to try to identify where the most likely partnerships are."

Vilsack's action plan also included a call for the USDA to use existing funds to partially finance the installation of 10,000 blender pumps within the next five years. Wayne Maloney, USDA's office of communications coordinator, said the agency's rural development department is aggressively working to identify technical and financial resources to be used for that purpose. "These efforts include reviewing, adjusting and marketing USDA's existing programs that can assist fueling stations to purchase or retrofit their existing fueling pumps," he said. "Under Secretary Tonsager has also hosted several discussions with government, industry and USDA Rural Development leadership on ways to work collaboratively to expand biofuel markets and consumption in America. These national discussions have led to numerous state and local level meetings being held or planned."