The Future of U.S. Ethanol Production: Where Do We Go from Here?

If there was one clear message that came out of the 24th annual Fuel Ethanol Workshop (FEW) held in Nashville, Tennessee this week, it was that despite all the negativity that has been thrown at ethanol, the industry will keep moving forward. Fast.

“We will survive,” were the only words delivered by Ron Fagen, President of Fagen Inc. on Monday evening at the ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the expo hall at the event.

Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) started the workshop with a keynote that served as a pep talk for the industry. He detailed ethanol’s recent roller coaster ride from the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) to the smear campaign waged, said Dinneen, by the oil and gas industry.

Moving forward quickly can certainly describe Poet Energy. At FEW, the EPA awarded the company its Energy Star Combined Heat and Power (CHP) award for Poet’s plant in Ashton, Iowa that now uses CHP to generate 7.2 megawatts of electricity, according to Nathan Schock, public relations director. “We are constantly looking to push the bounds of efficiency to make this product, using less water, less energy and increasing our yield so that we get more fuel per acre,” he said.

The company is also working on cellulosic ethanol production in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). That initiative is using corncobs as a feedstock. With plans to construct an integrated commercial-scale biorefinery to produce 100 million gallons per year (MGY) of corn-ethanol and 25 MGY of cellulosic ethanol, the company expects operations to begin in 2011.

Speaking loud and clear about the potential to produce cellulosic ethanol right now with production costs of less than US $1.00 per gallon was Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata.

“We’re ready to go today,” he said. The company uses a syngas to ethanol process, converting, Bolsen said, virtually any feedstock, to syngas via a plasma gasifier and then using proprietary microorganisms and bioreactor designs to convert that gas to ethanol.

“That’s the great flexibility, Coskata can use trash, tires, plastic bottles, diapers, it really doesn’t matter because all we’re doing is getting the carbon, we really just need those carbon atoms, and then the biological process reassembles the carbon atoms into fuel,” he said.

Bolsen envisions ethanol plants breaking out of the corn belt and setting up in Texas, California, Florida and outside of New York city. The process is able to use any feedstock and therefore “tires and trash, construction and demolition waste, those things are wonderful sources of carbon,” he said.

Right now, the company is building a demonstation plant in Madison, Pennsylvania. Bolsen said that since it takes about 2.5 years to design, build, and start up a plant, if all goes according to plan, “We’re looking at late 2010, early 2011 before the consumer will actually see [Coskata’s cellulosic] ethanol on the market.”

Verenium is another cellulosic ethanol producer moving closer and closer to commercialization. The company has set up a pilot plant in Louisiana that uses bagasse as a feedstock. “We’re in that exciting time where we’re actually now able to start the process of running it at a variable basis, as opposed to running it in beakers, we’re now actually running it at demonstration scale,” said Ken Barrett, director of specialty enzymes business development.

Recognizing that bagasse is not in abundant supply, the company is producing energy cane, sugar cane grown exclusively for ethanol use. It has less sugar content and grows more mass per acre said Barrett. “Energy cane is one of our first commercial generation feedstocks and wood won’t be far behind,” he said.

Of course there are still barriers standing in the way of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production. Vonnie Estes, new venture development manager of biofuels at DuPont Applied Biosciences pointed out some of them in her presentation, “Economically Viable Conversion of Cellulose to Ethanol.” She indicated that the government should be investing more money “on the cultivation, harvest, transport and storage of the feedstock,” pointing out that without more investment or incentives in these areas growers will not be willing to take the risk and start growing the necessary feedstocks.

She also said that DuPont, together with its partner Genencor, a division of Danisco, has invested US $140 million into the creation of a pilot cellulosic ethanol facility that, like Poets, uses corncobs as a feedstock and will be completed in 2009. Estes said that the location of the pilot facility will be announced within the next month.

Public Perception of Ethanol 

In the short term, though, it appears that the industry is going to have to launch some kind of counter attack to help consumers understand that ethanol is not a bad word. Apart from reminding listeners about the facts — that corn accounts for only a very small percentage of food costs, that the growing demand for food in places like China and India, where the many people are eating more meat, has also contributed to the high cost of food, that the rising cost of oil is a major contributor — RFA’s Dinneen also urged all attendees to write editorials and submit them to their local papers to counteract the negativity.

Poet, although it has no concrete plans for a consumer education campaign feels that the facts are on ethanol’s side. “We want to educate and remind the public why they were so excited about this thing in the first place,” said Poet’s Nathan Schock. “Because our industry brings some tremendous benefits to this country, from reducing green house gas emissions, increasing domestic fuel supply and revitalizing rural America, those messages haven’t changed.”

Manufacturer of efficiency software for ethanol plants, GE Fanuc, is also more focused on its business than a public education campaign. “We’re trying to educate manufacturers and help them understand how to run their factories better,” said Brandon Henning, global industry manager for biofuels, “but if you look at the overall Ecomagination story that GE has talked about, it wouldn’t be out of scope for them to put that into the Ecomagination story as well.”

Coskata’s Bolsen would like to see a concerted education campaign around next-generation ethanol.

“It doesn’t make sense to me, our alternative is to stay addicted to oil, to stay where we can’t produce our own fuel as a country, what we need to do is something like putting a man on the moon or a Manhattan project where we are simply trying to figure out how this country can become energy-independent in the next 15 to 20 years,” he said.

Brand strategist, Tim Kubista of Elements thinks that the messages about ethanol are just not getting out and the industry might be better off if it banded together to create one cohesive message. “You’ve got to ignore the others, set your vision, establish what your communications strategy is and stick to it,” he said.

In the end, it’s likely that the facts about ethanol will prevail and the market will ultimately decide to support it. “If ethanol can be produced for a dollar a gallon, and you can get it to the pump for US $2 or $2.50, [and] if gasoline’s at US $5.00 a gallon, the consumer will demand that their vehicle is flex fuel and they will demand that their fuel pump carries ethanol,” said Coskata’s Wes Bolsen.

He said, “We’re at the brink, we’re at the start of something that I hope is unstoppable.”

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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at

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