It’s only been a few months since Abengoa Bioenergy broke ground on its 23 MMgy multifeedstock cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan., but so far, construction of its first commercial-scale cellulosic facility is still “right on track,” according to Executive Vice President Chris Standlee, and should be ready for commissioning by the end of 2013. “We are very anxious to prove our technology at the commercial level and we are comfortable and confident that it’s going to be as expected,” he says. “It will be efficient, effective and meet our expectations.”
The company is also already exploring options for the location of its second commercial-scale cellulosic plant, but won’t begin constructing that facility until 2014, after the Hugoton plant is operational. “We’re not looking to start construction on a new facility in the immediate future by any means, but it’s never too early to be planning our next move,” Standlee says.
Future Abengoa cellulosic plants will likely be co-located with its existing corn ethanol facilities, primarily because the necessary infrastructure already exists in those locations. “We have the facilities, the roads, the offices, the relationships with the local producers and the states,” Standlee says. “So we’re just simply building on what we already have. It’s going to be much more efficient to do that.” Abengoa’s hub of ethanol production is in Nebraska, where the company operates an 88 MMgy plant in Ravenna and a 55 MMgy plant in York. Its cellulosic technology was also first proven at a pilot scale in York. Other Abengoa corn ethanol plants are located in Kansas, New Mexico, Illinois and Indiana. The two smallest of those plants, the 30 MMgy plant in Portales, N.M., and the 25 MMgy plant in Colwich, Kan., were temporarily shut down at the end of the year due to depressed market conditions.
Doug Bice, corporate project development manager at Abengoa Bioenergy, says that aside from logistical considerations, the availability of biomass and other natural resources, namely water, will be major factors in the selection of future cellulosic sites. “Water is a critical component for functionality of the plant,” he says. While the Hugoton plant is expected to use mostly corn stover and switchgrass as feedstocks, the company’s technology is multi-feedstock capable and future plants will need to be located near an abundance of various energy crops and residues. “It’s difficult to build a facility and rely on dedicated energy crops because farmers are reluctant to plant those crops until a facility is constructed,” Standlee says. “For our next plant, we’ll be looking at areas that have existing feedstocks available and the potential to develop more. Particularly, we think the dedicated feedstocks will have a great opportunity to provide the highest yields on a feedstock-per-acre basis.”
Abengoa has received numerous federal financial awards over the past few years to support the Hugoton plant. In 2011 the USDA approved a Biomass Crop Assistance Program project to assist in establishing switchgrass acres near the plant. The company also received a $132.4 million loan guarantee from the U.S. DOE in late September. Standlee says government support has been instrumental in developing the Hugoton plant and BCAP has been especially important in establishing new feedstocks. “One of the major challenges in the cellulosic industry is feedstock,” he says. “That’s not just in the growth of the feedstock, but also the harvesting, the storage, the delivery. Any time you’re dealing with a brand new use for a feedstock there are challenges to overcome. The BCAP program has the potential to ease the pain of developing cellulosic ethanol production.”
Recent challenges to BCAP, federal loan guarantee programs and other federal incentives to support renewable energy industries make it difficult to predict whether financial assistance will be available to aid future Abengoa projects and Standlee says he’s not sure whether the company will continue to pursue those projects with federal backing. “We’re still in the process of trying to build Hugoton and prove the economics at a commercial scale in that facility,” he says. “A lot of things can happen in two or three years. We’ll see what happens.” —Kris Bevill