Poet partners with ecological restoration firm on energy grass

By Kris Bevill | August 17, 2011

Poet LLC is venturing into the realm of energy grasses with a newly launched collaborative effort to establish native grasses on degraded lands in areas surrounding its 100 MMgy ethanol plant at Chancellor, S.D. The grasses, dubbed Conservation Biomass for this project due to their potential to restore and conserve degraded land, are pegged for use in the plant’s gasifier and, potentially, as cellulosic ethanol feedstock. The project is part of a deal reached with The Earth Partners, a group devoted to developing restoration solutions using bioenergy biomass sources, wherein The Earth Partners will negotiate with landowners and farmers to grow and harvest native energy grasses on marginal or degraded lands and sell some of the grasses to Poet for use in the Chancellor plant’s solid fuel boiler. Poet will also contribute some of its biomass harvest and process expertise gained through previous activities.

Nathan Schock, public relations director for Poet, said one of Poet’s goals through this project is to identify cost-comparative biomass sources that also offer substantial environmental benefits. Currently, the Chancellor facility meets all of its process steam needs by utilizing landfill gas from nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., and co-firing it with woodchips and/or other biomass materials. Energy grasses are an attractive option for the facility because they are native to the area, Schock said. “For us, it’ll be great to be able to use it as an energy source for our process steam in Chancellor and hopefully we can learn more about the logistics about those native grasses while our scientists are doing research and development on making cellulosic ethanol from them,” he said.

The concept of using cellulosic feedstocks as energy sources at facilities appears to be gaining steam as producers contemplate how to perfect the complicated logistics of biomass harvest, storage and processing without having to wait for a cellulosic plant to be constructed as an offtake facility. This is exactly what Poet has in mind, Schock said, adding that the company has already done that to a certain extent through its stover harvest demonstration in Iowa. Last year, some of the corn stover collected for Poet’s cellulosic ethanol project, named Project Liberty, was sent from Emmetsburg, Iowa, to Chancellor and gasified in the boiler, he said.

The low cost of natural gas may be deter some producers from using biomass as an alternative feedstock, but Schock said Chancellor continues to operate economically on biomass. “The low price of natural gas means that it’s not a big savings, but that’s part of our objective with Conservation Biomass – to find sources of biomass that can be cost effective both with the other waste materials that we’re already using in the facility, as well as natural gas,” he said.

While Chancellor’s gasifier is up and running now, it will likely be at least a year before the first load of energy grasses is delivered to the plant. Schock said it is premature to estimate a date that grasses will begin being used at the plant, but said it could be sometime next year. “It’s a long-term contract and agreement,” he said. “It’s not something that you just fire up today.” It’s also too early to tell how many acres might be committed to energy grasses through this new partnership, but Schock said most will be located within a close radius to the ethanol plant.