Laying the Groundwork

Supplying feedstocks for a cellulosic ethanol production facility will require long-term commitments from hundreds of growers. As efforts to commercialize the process are refined an outline of a biomass agricultural system is beginning to take shape.
By Susanne Retka Schill | June 05, 2007
Chopping corn silage, baling straw, and growing hay and alfalfa aren't unfamiliar processes. Farmers have long supplied feed and bedding for livestock operations. However, transforming that system to supply biorefineries is challenging considering the sheer size and breadth of a facility's biomass appetite.

A study led by the Straw Value Add Committee in Idaho and funded through a USDA value-added grant, looked at existing straw baling equipment and considered what a scaled-up system might look like. "A biomass refinery in our case would require 800,000 tons of biomass annually," says Duane Grant, the committee's project manager and an Idaho grower who produces 18,000 acres of irrigated crops. "That would require the harvestable biomass from 400,000 to 500,000 acres in Idaho, just for one plant." Grant estimates that more than 1,000 growers would be required to supply the needed tonnage, all within a 100-mile radius. "It requires that we capture 70 [percent] to 80 percent of available feedstock from all the acres in that 100-mile circle."

At the same time that the Straw Value Add Committee began looking for ways to profitably use excess straw in southern Idaho, Iogen Corp., a Canadian ethanol producer that plans to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Shelly, Idaho, approached the Idaho National Laboratory for help in evaluating straw as a feedstock to produce cellulosic ethanol. The straw feasibility study took the national lab's work a step further to see if the first processing step could be moved into the field. Surprisingly, by powdering the baled straw in the field, the bulk density of the light biomass is improved enough so that trucks with side extensions can be loaded to maximum weight limits for transporting to the biorefinery.

The Idaho study examined the equipment, manpower and time needed for each step of a biomass harvest, finding that one-ton bales measuring 4 x 4 x 8 feet was the most efficient of current systems. The study recommended further work on bulk handling systems. Grant explains that the study was limited to feasibility and did not permit work on prototypes.

Another major goal of the study was to examine business models. Biorefineries will be dependent on a reliable year-round supply from a given region and, in turn, growers will be dependent on one market for their biomass. "It requires that producers and refiners have a very, very good working relationship so each partner's interest is protected and each party remains committed," Grant says. "It really sets up an interesting dynamic. Each holds the other hostage."

The study examined four business arrangements, from the closed cooperative used by many corn-to-ethanol plants to three other types of contracting arrangements. The business plan developed in the feasibility study laid out a farmer cooperative modeled after the area's sugar beet industry. The cooperative would contract with the processing plant to supply feedstock and would contract with farmers and manage field operations and delivery. Because the industry is so young and to satisfy investors' interests, Iogen decided it need to keep feedstock contracting in-house, Grant says.

Iogen has already begun signing contracts with growers in the Idaho Falls, Idaho, area, says Maurice Hladik, Iogen's marketing director. The company received one of the U.S. DOE's grants for cellulosic ethanol commercialization and is waiting for word on a loan guarantee program before breaking ground on the facility. "Our financial partners are not ready to commit until we know the government is truly ready to share the risk," he says. A parallel process is happening for a Canadian plant to be located north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, near Birch Hills.

While Iogen waits for the green light to begin construction in Idaho and Saskatchewan, Hladik continues to look for locations for future plants. "Every two weeks I am somewhere in the United States, sorting out where the communities of interest are, where the biomass is and which state governments are the most aggressive."

Kansas Studies Biomass
When the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) amended its bylaws this past winter to begin representing biomass growers, a contingent of Kansas wheat producers returned home ready to launch a Kansas initiative. Work has begun on a decision-making tool designed to help wheat producers decide if it would be feasible to sell their crop residue, taking into consideration sustainable agriculture guidelines and at what price it would be affordable to sell the crop residue. The group is also planning to conduct a feasibility study, building upon the work that's already been done in Idaho and tweaking it to fit the situation in Kansas. St. Louis, Mo.,-based ethanol producer Abengoa Bioenergy brought in Idaho National Laboratory researchers to help develop a harvest, collection and storage system, says Dana Peterson, policy director with Kansas Wheat, a cooperative agreement between the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers and the Kansas Wheat Commission. Abengoa, like Iogen, received a DOE award to develop an 11.4 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant.

Although the Idaho and Kansas studies will be similar in scope, the environments in the two states vary. "They (Idaho National Laboratory researchers) tell us our winter wheat straw is quite different from Idaho straw," Peterson says. Kansas also presents the opportunity to study corn, milo and sorghum residues, as well as grasses grown on Conservation Reserve Program acres and switchgrass.

"The area I'd like to see farmers move on is harvesting, storage and transportation," says Tom Robb with Abengoa's research and development group. "The infrastructure to do that doesn't exist. If there are three harvest times in a year, how many balers will be needed, where's the storage? Cellulosic ethanol may be technologically feasible, but if the logistics part is not there, it's not going to happen." Weathering and mold may also be a problem in stored biomass that could cause large storage losses and problems in the fermentation process and in the byproducts.

The Kansas study is designed to pull together testing procedures for different biomass qualities and ways of estimating quantity based on rainfall, soil type and productivity. Abengoa estimates that a facility would require 5 percent of the biomass feedstock produced in a 50-mile radius of the plant. "That's a prime question for our feasibility study," Peterson says.

There are other distinct differences when examining feasibility in Kansas compared with Idaho, Peterson says. Transportation regulations are stiffer regarding weight limitations, different growing conditions affect storability and Kansas dryland crop yields are not as predictable as crop yields produced on irrigated land in southern Idaho. Different regions in Kansas present different situations as well. In the drier regions of western Kansas, the straw is more valuable as mulch because it holds moisture in the soil. In other regions of central Kansas, the straw is removed so the soil dries more quickly, and in the four or five counties where continuous wheat production is common, growers often burn the straw in the fields to reduce disease carryover.

Creating a biomass farming system where none has existed will require some work, Robb says. "We're not going to open a facility and start advertising for biomass. We're going to have to be out there two years in advance with strong education programs for farmers."

Policy Needs
While the groundwork continues, policy-makers are examining what needs to be in place. When the NAWG decided to include biomass growers as a constituency the group joined the effort to prod the DOE to launch its loan guarantee program for cellulosic ethanol facilities.

Mark Gaede, director of government affairs and environmental policy for NAWG, says they will be watching the language for proposed grower incentives in the 2007 Farm Bill. Program regulations will need to be true incentives, he says, while addressing environmental concerns about the potential for removing too much crop residue.

Gaede has also worked with Iogen's Hladik in proposing a pilot project for biomass crops. They believe that farmers need to plant five to 20 acres of switchgrass or another biomass crop and follow it through the full cycle of establishment and mature crop husbandry for at least five years. To keep up with the feedstock needs of a biorefinery, several hundred growers will be needed from a reasonably concentrated area. They proposed a widespread pilot program for the 2007 Farm Bill that would cost approximately $42 million annually and involve 40 states, each with 300 farmers growing an average of 15 acres. They suggest that selected growers should be reasonably concentrated within a 60-mile radius and must be willing to grow a minimum of 200 acres of biomass crops if the pilot proves successful.

Organizing for a biomass future involves more than learning about a new crop or tweaking machinery. "It isn't just farmers," Hladik says. "It's about communitiesseveral hundred farmers in a 60-mile radius that are like-minded. They want this in their community. They've demonstrated they can grow dedicated biomass crops, they have the residue and the combined amount is sufficient to attract a biorefinery."

Susanne Retka Schill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at sretkaschill@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 746-8385.