Several plants bought, resume production

By Holly Jessen | March 16, 2010
From California to Pennsylvania and many states in between, ethanol plants continue to come online, be recommissioned and new projects move forward.

In Production
Production resumed at Pacific Ethanol Inc.'s 60 MMgy Magic Valley plant in Burley, Idaho, in early January. The plant had been idle since February 2009. Due to unfavorable market conditions, the company's subsidiaries filed voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in a restructuring effort for the Idaho facility and its other plants in Stockton and Madera, Calif., and Boardman, Ore. The Boardman plant never ceased operations.

The first commercial-scale plant in Pennsylvania started producing ethanol at the end of 2009. Bionol Clearfield LLC, a 110 MMgy plant in Clearfield, Pa., was performance testing in early February. Although not in the Corn Belt, it is located in what the company considers a gateway to New York blending terminals. "We are just starting to break into that marketplace," said Roger Schmidt, general manager. The new plant has a corn supply agreement with Lansing Trade Group, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan., although currently, up to 75 percent of its corn is sourced from Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, Schmidt said.

In another first, construction was completed on the first corn-based ethanol plant in North Carolina. In early February, Clean Burn Fuels LLC's 60 MMgy facility began commissioning with the first grind anticipated for early April, according to Doug Archer, general manager. Although plant completion has taken longer than first expected, Archer said the delayed opening may be advantageous. "The market has started to turn," Archer said. "Instead of a volatile market, we are looking at a pretty flat, even market, and the industry is doing really well right now."

The retrofit project at Tharaldson Ethanol plant in Casselton, N.D., was nearly complete in February. ICM Inc. started work building a new energy plant at the recently completed 110 MMgy plant in November. ICM has been contracted to manage the plant and employs about 50 people at the location.

Resuming Production
Built in the 1980s, this legacy ethanol plant, formerly known as Sun Energy, was purchased by Nexsun Corp., which plans to double capacity to 6 MMgy. The company expected to start upgrades in late February or early March and reopen the modernized plant by early summer, according to Alex Park, vice president of project development with Nexsun. "When I say modernize, we want it to run as efficiently as possible to produce as much ethanol as possible per bushel of feedstock," he said. "We have to automate the plant, to put in processes that monitor it constantly with computers, instead of people turning knobs."

The purchase of Renew Energy, a 110 MMgy plant in Jefferson, Wis., was finalized by Valero Renewable Fuels Co. LLC, which bid on the facility in a December bankruptcy auction. Although William Blair & Co. and Bankers' Bank, the lead secured creditor named Valero as the winning bidder after the auction, Iowa-based All Fuels & Energy unsuccessfully disputed that in court. The company then tried offering Valero $100 million for the plant, which was not accepted. "We took their calls as a courtesy," said Bill Day of Valero's corporate communications department, "but the transaction closed and Valero now officially owns the plant. We intend to operate it."

AE Biofuels entered into a three-year agreement with Cilion Inc., the owner of a California ethanol plant that has been idle since April. The 55 MMgy plant in Keyes, Calif., will operate under the name AE Advanced Fuels Keyes and is expected to restart production in late spring. Initially the plant will continue to use corn as its main feedstock with plans to utilize up to 25 percent agricultural residues. "Our goal for cellulosic production is the first half of 2011," said Andy Foster, president and chief operating officer.

An 85 MMgy ethanol plant owned by Sunoco Inc. in Fulton, N.Y., will be retrofitted by ICM Inc. Sunoco, a leading manufacturer and marketer of petroleum and petrochemical products, purchased the idled facility in mid-2009. According to ICM, the Sunoco plant will begin receiving corn and resume operations in July. Speaking on the project, Michael McKee, general manager of Sunoco's ethanol business, said, "ICM has the knowledge and experience to make this project a success. We are pleased to join with ICM to complete this important work and begin operating the facility."

Cellulosic Ethanol Advances
A grand opening for a cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility in Vonore, Tenn., was held Jan. 29. The DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC and University of Tennessee/Genera Energy LLC project began producing ethanol in mid-January. The 74,000-square-foot facility has the capacity to produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol from corncobs and switchgrass and is preparing DDCE's integrated technology for commercial production by 2012.

Joule Biotechnologies Inc. leased land in Leander, Texas, for a cellulosic ethanol pilot plant that is expected to be operational later this year. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company will be scaling up its trademarked Helioculture technology to produce ethanol from microorganisms. Currently, tests show the process yields ethanol in excess of 6,000 gallons per acre, per year. "We're taking it one step further with a pilot plant," said Felicia Spagnoli, company spokesperson, adding that the goal at the pilot plant will be to optimize the system and drive up productivity rates. The company estimates full-scale, commercial production utilizing their microbial-based process will yield 25,000 gallons per acre, per year of ethanol.