NC closes Biofuels Center after funding cut

I was sad to hear that the Biofuels Center in North Carolina will be closed in the next couple of weeks.
By Holly Jessen | July 29, 2013

North Carolina’s legislators recently voted on a fiscal year budget that does not include funding for the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. As a result, staff is beginning the shutdown process immediately, with final closure expected in a couple of weeks.

State legislators voted on a state budget last week, which cut off $2 million in funding the Biofuels Center uses to operate. The center, which was created by the State General Assembly in 2007, had a goal of replacing 10 percent of the liquid fuels sold in the state with biofuels produced from locally grown feedstocks within 10 years. According to the about section of the Biofuels Center’s website, “The long-term task of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina is to develop a statewide biofuels industry sector to reduce the state's dependence on imported petroleum.”

The Biofuels Center had identified energy grasses and woody biomass as the feedstocks that would be the most suited for creating a long-term profitable and sustainable biofuels industry in the state. Other feedstocks were also being considered, specifically with investigations into municipal solid waste.

The fact that it’s being shut down so abruptly is shocking and sad news to a lot of people, including the staff of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Wil Glenn, director, communications and public affairs for the Biofuels Center put it this way. “The Center, a growing biofuels community statewide, and companies considering new facilities here share dismay and disbelief that North Carolina has visibly pulled back from long-term, organized, and deliberate commitment to long-term biofuels development,” he said. “… With funding eliminated, the Center will within weeks, responsibly, carefully, and effectively terminate its complex activities, grant programs, and shut down its growing and development projects.”

A total of 14 people employed at the center will lose their jobs. But that’s not all. Another 20 people across North Carolina receive some level of employment funding through 46 grants and projects that will now be terminated.

I can’t image getting that news. You have two weeks to pack up your desk and find a new job—otherwise, you’re out on your own, without a paycheck. And all your coworkers are in the same boat.

But that’s not even the worst part. This is a blow to all the biofuel-related projects that the Biofuels Center was working on or would have worked on in the future. What will this mean for the admirable long-term goals set in 2007? Will North Carolina be able to grow its biofuel industry without a specific agency working on research projects and attracting companies to build in that state?

One of the projects that received assistance from the Biofuels Center is Chemtex International Inc. of Wilmington, N.C., a project to build a 20 MMgy cellulosic ethanol facility in eastern North Carolina. The company recently announced it had signed a long-term feedstock supply agreement with Murphy-Brown LLC of Warsaw, N.C. That project appears to be solidly moving ahead and the closure of the Biofuels Center is reportedly not expected to have any ill effects on its viability.

Paolo Carollo, executive vice president of Chemtex, told me in an email that the company recognizes how important the Biofuels Center’s contributions were to getting the project to the point it is today. “What the Biofuel Center has developed remains a great asset for the State and possibly the basis for the establishment of the advanced biofuel industry in this region,” he said.

Carollo acknowledged that North Carolina is currently undergoing “substantial changes” while adding that the state’s leadership has clearly indicated that it will continue to support growth in the biofuels sector. “State legislators and State agencies are now actively working with us and other industry players to bridge the activities supported by the Biofuel Center to State Departments with an increased focus on supporting and accelerating the deployment of commercial projects in advanced stage of development,” he said. “In our views North Carolina has well understood the incredible potential that this region has to support the growth of advanced biofuels and bio-based chemical industry and is willing to be a key player in North America for the next years to come.”

That’s good news. It would be tragic if North Carolina lost all the momentum and progress built up in the last five plus years during which the Biofuels Center has been working to move the biofuels industry forward in that state. Still, when I look into my crystal ball, showing North Carolina of 2017, I see a future in which the state would be much closer to those goals set in 2007 if the Biofuels Center had continued operating, than it will be now that it is closing down.

My condolences to all those that lost their jobs and, or funding for biofuels research with the closure of the Biofuels Center. Even without those passionate and hardworking folks on the case, I sincerely hope more cellulosic ethanol or other advanced biofuels projects choose the state (and other states across the U.S.) as a good location to build second-generation biofuels production plants. It’s the only way we’re going to achieve the long-term and admirable goals of the renewable fuel standard and forward-thinking individual states like North Carolina.