Growth Energy gathers for 6th leadership conference in Phoenix

By Susanne Retka Schill | February 27, 2015

For the ethanol industry, 2015 is about "moving ahead and moving faster," Growth Energy co-chairman Jeff Broin told attendees in his opening remarks at Growth Energy's sixth annual Executive Leadership Conference Feb. 26-27 in Phoenix.

Broin outlined the current state of the industry, with producers in 2014 seeing the best margins in some time. He thanked the industry for responding to the call to fight back on the U.S. EPA's proposed write down of the renewable volume obligations. "Thousands of letters poured into the EPA," he said. "And EPA heard."  2014 was also the year that the industry formed the Prime the Pump fund, he said, raising tens of millions of dollars to support the adoption of E15. He thanked retailers such as MAPCO, Minnoco, CHS, Protec and Sheetz, among others. “We are proud to support you and stand with you to bring American Ethanol to our customers," he said. Broin highlighted what is at stake, saying, “This is more than a war simply between ethanol and oil; it’s a war between agriculture and oil. This is a war we need to keep fighting, a war we cannot loose. The world is depending on us."

In his CEO report following Broin's opening remarks, Tom Buis said,  “We are winning this battle and we are winning because of you.” He highlighted the accomplishments of the industry this past year, saying the number of retailers offering E15 has doubled. "It’s only a matter of time before 2015 becomes the year of E15." Buis described E15 as the low hanging fruit that promises to bring more ethanol into the marketplace. Other priorities for the year ahead will include defending the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and engaging with members of Congress and candidates. There will be a particular focus on Iowa, he added. "We want to get them on the record," he said, regarding their support for the RFS.

In an afternoon panel comprised of friends of ethanol, Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, pointed out that their work during the last election cycle in Iowa helped turn the successful senatorial candidate, Joni Ernst, from saying she was philosophically opposed to the RFS to supporting it. Woodhouse explained his organization has long criticized Big Oil's big profits in Americans United's support for the middle class. And, when Big Oil stepped up its campaign against ethanol, the organization decided to become proactive in support of the RFS. Several clips of commercials from Americans United for Change and Vote Vets aired at the conference received enthusiastic applause. Jon Soltz, chairman of Vote Vets, encouraged veterans in the audience to become part of the 400,000-plus group that makes a graphic connection between national security and support for U.S. made renewable fuels.

A third speaker in the panel on friends of biofuels, Andrew Seifter with Media Matters, emphasized that a quick response to false information in media reports is critical. "No matter how wrong a statement is, if you don't rebut it immediately, it will be accepted," he said. Media Matters both fact checks and follows media reports, working with multiple groups to improve coverage.  It not only tries to correct misinformation, but calls out media organizations for not covering events, such as the opening of the first large-scale cellulosic ethanol plants to come online. "We need you to help," Seifter told the 600-some attending the conference. "If you see falsehoods, let us know. If you're not getting enough coverage, let us know that, too."

The progress towards cellulosic ethanol commercialization was the focus of another panel on the first day, comprised of the leadership of the four major Corn Belt projects. Jeff Lautt, chairman of Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels described the company's 25 MMgy Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa, that converts 770 tons of corn stover per day. "We've demonstrated when running full out, that's one round bale per minute," he said. Feedstock collection, an area where the company anticipated having issues, has gone smoothly, he reported. Last year stover was collected from 175,000 acres in a three-week time frame. The plant itself has been working through an unanticipated issue with the flow of biomass in the pretreatment side. "We've been working with our partner Andritz through the challenges," he said. "We knew it was going to be an extended commissioning period."

Delayne Johnson, CEO of Quad County Corn Processor in Galva, Iowa, outlined the results the company is getting with its bolt-on Cellerate process. The corn ethanol plant is getting 6 percent more ethanol by converting more of the fiber in the corn kernel, plus it has increased its corn oil extraction to 1.6 pounds per bushel of corn and seen the protein content in the distillers grains boosted to 40 percent. "Cellerate technology improves earnings," he added. "The incremental income is 15 cents more per corn-starch ethanol gallon." Whereas the ethanol yield had been between 2.72 and 2.73 gallons per bushel of corn before, the baseline after Cellerate was started has been 2.8 gallons per bushel, and last month was 2.9, he said. Quad County will begin increasing solids level in the second quarter, aiming to combine the Cellerate technology with the viscosity reductions that come from the Enogen corn used at the plant. Enogen is Syngenta's modified corn variety that produces enzymes needed in the ethanol process. Johnson said the company expects to increase throughput by 20 percent while reducing energy use by 25 percent.

Bill Feehery, president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences, reviewed progress at its commercial-scale facility nearing completion at Nevada, Iowa. DuPont sees cellulosic ethanol as the first step in a long term strategy, he said, "which is the beginning of a bioeconomy where we'll replace oil with sugar."  The company has an agreement in place with Procter & Gamble, where cellulosic ethanol will be used in Tide detergent, and the company is developing a project in Macedonia ultimately aimed at serving Europe both cellulosic biofuel and bioplastics. As the process is optimized, Feehery said DuPont believes cellulosic ethanol will be cost competitive with oil.

Chris Standlee, executive vice president of global affairs with Abengoa Bioenergy, put some numbers to the cost reductions being realized. Since 2010, Abengoa has seen its proprietary enzyme costs drop from $1.85 per gallon to 50 cents per gallon in 2014. Yeast costs have dropped from 10 cents to 9 cents per gallon between 2010 and 2014 while yields have risen from 55 gallons to 75 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass.  The company expects to see further improvements in the next few years. "The Hugoton startup has gone very well," Standlee said of the company's first commercial-scale facility in Kansas. "So far, we've just have minor mechanical issues that we've been able to overcome."  Abengoa's second planned facility in Brazil just received a letter of intent for financing from BNDES, the Brazilian development bank, he reported, and the company is actively pursuing a waste-to-ethanol project in a major U.S. city. "We're also looking to develop other products such as butanols and acids," Standlee said.

Friday morning's program included presentation on the NASCAR partnership, a panel discussing the development of E15 and discussions on navigating the political landscape.