Sunshine Summit: A Review of Florida's Farm-to-Fuel Conference

Amidst the swaying palm trees, the Florida agriculture department hosted government and promising renewable energy project representatives in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the 2007 Farm-to-Fuel Summit.
By Ron Kotrba | August 27, 2007
Florida is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change: 1,200 miles of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are laden with tourists and residents generating a major portion of the state's revenue, so the slightest rising of the world's ocean waters from a slow melting of age-old glaciers could decimate the state's tourism industry; inland, the highest elevation point is only 345 feet above sea level at Britton Hill. Curbing Florida's contribution to fossil-induced climate change is only one of many reasons state officials are motivated to quickly develop the state's bioenergy and renewable fuels industries. There has been little commercial biofuels production in Florida when measured against the booming Midwestern ethanol-producing centers of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Only one ethanol plant exists in the state and it's been idle for years. Furthermore, consumers can barely find gas stations that offer E10. According to the unified message from those at the Florida Farm-to-Fuel Summit in St. Petersburg, Fla., this will all soon change. The event, organized by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, brought together a broad mix of legislators and industry participants to build on the national momentum behind renewable energy and fulfill the progressive vision of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Earlier this year, Crist signed-off on the new budget, which includes $35 million for renewable projects: $20 million in funding for ethanol research; $5 million to continue the Renewable Energy Technologies Grants Program; and $10 million for other renewable energy technologies grants. "This summit is an exemplary model of what can be accomplished when we work together to develop innovative solutions for the challenges and opportunities in Florida's energy and environmental future," Crist said. During an energy policy round-table at the conference, state Sen. Mike Bennett spoke of the "fragmentation of energy policy" in the state. An initial report on a comprehensive energy bill for the state is due Dec. 31, said Florida Energy Commission Chair Tommy Boroughs.

The idea to hold a summit began a couple of years ago as a result of state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson's leadership in the "25x'25" program whose mission is to satisfy 25 percent of all American energy needs from renewable resources by 2025. Florida is poised to do its part in this effort. A spokesman for Alico Inc.—$33 million U.S. DOE grant winner for development of a cellulosic ethanol demonstration project in Florida—said that of the 1 billion tons of available biomass calculated by the DOE, Florida is home to an astonishing 10 percent.

The Future of Ethanol in Florida
Alan Banks, representative of a uniquely named Anglo-American company Losonoco Inc., spoke of the abundant political will in Florida. This company with offices in England and Florida is bringing the Sunshine State's lone ethanol plant, centrally located in Bartow, out of retirement by integrating first- and second-generation conversion technologies. The plant was originally built to produce 6.5 MMgy of ethanol using beverage waste. Banks said the idle plant should be operational again by the summer of next year. In order to accomplish this, however, a choice of feedstock must be made in the coming months—corn or milo—in order to have the proper equipment specifications. The plant is located next to a 135 megawatt (MW) power plant. The recommissioned alcohol facility will receive waste heat for processing and return the condensate back to the power plant for its own operations. Next to the dry-mill ethanol facility, Losonoco is planning to build a 125-ton per day demonstration facility for gasification of carbon-based feedstocks—such as the dry-mill process crop residues and distillers grains—into ethanol (60 percent), ammonia nitrate (20 percent) and steam to run the process (20 percent). The Skygas Gasification process is a plasma-based technology slated for use at the collocated 6 MMgy demonstration plant in Bartow, which Banks said requires no smokestack because the process releases no emissions.

Another company with big production plans in Florida, Alico owns 136,000 acres in central and southern Florida, including 14,000 acres of sugarcane, 10,000 acres of citrus, 2,000 acres of sod and more. Alico is receiving $2.5 million from the state energy department to build a commercial-scale biorefinery in southern Florida, where it intends to produce 13.9 MMgy of ethanol, 6.3 MW of electricity and 50 tons of ammonia a day. Craig Evans, Alico consultant, said the biorefinery will use multiple biomass—and carbon-based feedstocks at an estimated cost of $3.20 per ton, most of which is transportation costs. Alico will implement patented technology for gasifying the feedstock followed by a biocatalytic processing. The technology comes from Bioenergy Resources Inc. (BRI) and the patent is held by James Gaddy with the University of Arkansas. It allows for concurrent production of electricity and ethanol and/or hydrogen. To ferment the syngas, an acetogenic bacteria known as clostridium ljungdahlii is used to ingest the gas and convert carbon monoxide to ethanol, after which the ethanol is distilled and separated from the hydrogen and water. "Time in to time out is less than an hour," Evans said, citing research conducted at a pilot plant that has utilized the technology for four years. The fermentation vessels used in the pilot plant are 2 feet in diameter. The state grant money will be used to scale-up the fermentors to 20 feet across. A site for the demonstration facility is being initiated this year with permitting to start in October. Washington Group International is the engineering, procurement and construction contractor, and Alico estimates an 18- to 20-month build time. Evans said the second-generation demonstration facility should be operational by the end of 2009.

David Stewart, Citrus Energy LLC president and vice president of engineering, would like to see the trillion dollars spent annually on fossil fuels redirected to investments in the U.S. agriculture industry to advance renewable fuels technologies. There's 800,000 acres of citrus crops planted in Florida—100 million citrus trees—producing 4 million to 5 million tons of citrus waste per year after processing, he said, and the feedstock is continuously produced seven to eight months out of the year. Citrus Energy is capitalizing on this citrus waste, which has "no real good uses" outside of unprofitable animal feed preparation; the production of citrus pulp pellets for animal feed requires a large capital investment by the fruit processors with negative returns on investment. Citrus waste is an easier cellulosic feedstock to pretreat because the lignin is not the primary cell-binding agent within the biomass. Instead, pretreatments must break down a much less rigid material, pectin, in order to reduce complex polymers into simpler sugars for fermentation. Citrus Energy will hydrolyze the materials with a mixture of commercial pectinase, cellulase and beta-glucosidase enzymes in a hydrolysis process developed by the USDA Citrus Laboratory. Conventional brewer's yeast will perform fermentation. Citrus Energy, formed as an LLC in Florida last year, plans to set up a small 4 MMgy bioreactor next to a large citrus processor where the feedstocks are readily available in abundance for little cost and no transportation fees. Citrus Energy also doesn't have to develop an efficient harvesting method. Stewart said permits are in place at the fruit processor. Shared infrastructure and steam will reduce processing costs even further. Citrus oil, a solvent used in certain cleaning products, can be recovered during processing to provide additional income.

Florida International University's George Philippidis talked about Florida Crystals Corp.'s plans to convert its sugarcane bagasse byproduct stream into ethanol, for which it received a $990,000 grant from the state energy department. The project will ingest 500,000 tons of bagasse on a dry-matter basis per year to make 40 MMgy of ethanol. The plant is being collocated with a major sugar-processing complex in southern Florida. "Operating experience is the key," said Philippidis, adding that integration with existing operations such as those in the sugar industry is critical for commercial feasibility. He said the state grant would allow the project to focus on further development of its biochemical pretreatment technology to soften the bagasse, followed by enzymatic hydrolysis to break down the material to simple sugars for fermentation.

The distinguished Lonnie Ingram, professor at the University of Florida, said the U.S. energy and transportation fuels industries should be familiar and comfortable working with biomass, considering coal and petroleum are fossil biomasses. "So we've been working with biomass all along," Ingram said. He spoke of the necessity to use everything that comes into the biorefinery door, including the 50 percent moisture content resident in wood to be used for process water, the lignin or "nature's plastic" for power, and more. "Energy independence could be a moon-shot for our generation," he said. In conjunction with a pretreatment process of dilute acid hydrolysis in addition to the use of cellulase enzymes to break down lignin, an organism of Ingram's invention is used to convert the C5 and C6 sugars into a common intermediate for fermentation. Verenium Corp., created when Celunol Corp. (formerly BC International) and enzyme-maker Diversa Corp. merged, is licensing the organism from the University of Florida and is constructing a demonstration facility in Jennings, La., where a pilot plant utilizing the technology already exists.

Markets, Growth and Big Oil
Ethanol's growth in production and consumption is being considered a "movement," said Robert White with the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC). White said ethanol is constantly facing challenges from Big Oil and the media. Infrastructure blockages on behalf of the oil companies stymie broader availability of E85 while the media persist in anti-E85 campaigns based on arguments of fuel efficiency losses and increased crop prices. Higher prices for cotton T-shirts, tequila and beer are some of the absurdities being blamed on ethanol. One of EPIC's short-term goals is to have 25 states in its national branding program by the end of this year, so consumers will know when ethanol is blended into the gasoline they buy. "Florida is the next state to have our stylized ‘E' on the pump as the state begins to blend ethanol," White said. A new E85 label will be available in coming months, too. EPIC is arranging a contract with an undisclosed company to clean 1,180 underground storage tanks in Florida to prepare for the introduction of E10. Then he targeted the service technicians, saying that people trust their mechanics and if they are spreading a message to their customers that ethanol is bad, people will have a tendency to believe them. "Mechanics will have to learn about ethanol," he said. White also said Big Oil continues to de-emphasize the importance of renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, but those oil companies are the same ones heavily promoting their own activities in ethanol, "even if it is just blending the mandated amount."

Adam Schubert, strategy advisor with major oil company BP, responded to White's criticism of petroleum companies by saying that BP blended 720 million gallons of the 5-billion-plus gallons U.S. ethanol producers made last year, which was over and above any regulatory blending requirements. Climate change is largely associated with "our business and we have opportunities to change that," Schubert said. "We cannot address climate change without addressing [carbon dioxide] emissions from transportation," he said, adding that the proliferation of biofuels production and use in the next 20 to 30 years can have a big effect on addressing climate change. "But E10 can only take us so far in penetrating the ever-growing fuel appetite in the U.S.," Schubert said frankly. He spoke of BP's efforts to commercialize biobutanol, an alternative fuel complimenting ethanol. Biobutanol has no issues with vapor, water or pipeline integration as ethanol does, and the energy content per gallon is midway between ethanol (two-thirds of gas) and gasoline. BP is also building a wheat-based ethanol plant in the United Kingdom (UK)—one of the largest there and northeastern U.K.'s first—which will supply one-third of all the ethanol consumed in the country. This will be next to the oil company's biobutanol pilot plant. Schubert also mentioned a newly formed joint venture between BP and D1 Oils PLC to commercialize biodiesel production.

Ethanol displaced 206 million barrels of oil in the United States, said Matt Hartwig with the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). Hartwig brought the audience's attention to the right side of the peak oil curve, iterating the importance of the southeast's capitalization on renewable fuels production in anticipation of a downward slope in global oil reserves. He urged research to investigate the use of higher blends of ethanol in conventional gas-engine vehicles. "Maybe a 10 percent blend is not the magic number," he said. "Maybe it's E22, or E35."

The heat integration aspect of biorefineries is important. The U.S. pulp and paper industry, a biorefinery model using 50 million tons a year of virgin wood to produce chemicals, paper and more, remains more than 50 percent energy self-sufficient, said Ryan Katofsky with Navigant Consulting Inc. "You can make anything from lignin except money," he said, repeating a saying used in the pulp and paper industry, where its "black liquor" byproduct stream has long been used to power a percentage of the pulping process. The energy savings across the industry is equivalent to displacing 285 million barrels of oil. His presentation covered a new biorefinery project that Navigant Consulting is involved in, which will be 100 percent energy self-sufficient and produce distillate-type fuels and possibly chemicals using a black-liquor gasifier to produce syngas. "We don't care what our feedstock looks like," Katofsky said. The gasification process will require 30 atmospheres of pressure, after which the syngas undergoes cleanup. Up to 30 percent will be used to power the process while the remainder will go to a selective catalyst to make distillate fuels such as dimethyl ether (DME), a diesel fuel substitute.

George Bolton, founder of AgCert International, said his company is the largest supplier of greenhouse gas credits in the world. "The production of renewable energy produces renewable energy credits and that has value all over the world," he said. Bolton mentioned the clean development mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol, and said that greenhouse gas credits will play a much larger part in the U.S. economy in the future. There are 130,000 dairy cattle in Florida with an average of 730 cows per farm, Bolton said. That's a lot of manure, which could be deposited in a simple lagoon—lined and covered—to create an energy source for producers. Through the development of these types of bioenergy systems, AgCert helps create a new revenue stream for farmers through the selling of greenhouse gas emissions credits.

Consider the social applications of widespread renewable energy production, said Marian Marinescu, an assistant professor of forest utilization at the University of Florida. "We need to teach people that electricity doesn't just come from those two holes in the wall," he told the audience. Big issues involved in utilizing forest materials are variations in biomass size, moisture content and quality. "Every tree is different," Marinescu said, adding that inter- and intra-species variability is no small task to overcome. "In Florida, the lowest hanging fruit is wood pellets."

Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. is going after that low-hanging Floridian fruit. Olaf Roed, president and CEO of Green Circle Bio Energy, said greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels—including those emitted by air, land and sea—represent only 14 percent of all greenhouse gases produced in the world. The power industry, however, is a significant contributor and that is where biomass has the most promising potential in the next 10 years, Roed said. "The power industry infrastructure has been built up over a long period of time," he said. "We can almost immediately start reducing fossil fuel use in the current infrastructure. Most power plants use coal and powder injection technology, which is very adaptable to cofiring." Florida has seen a net growth in fiber supplies, and the southeast United States is home to the largest plantation-style pine tree plantings in the world, Roed said. His company, which was incorporated last year, broke ground in February on a 550-ton-per-year wood pelleting plant 60 miles north of Panama City, Fla. The plant is expected to be operational by December. Even though it does take a lot of heat to dry down the 50-percent moisture-laden pine, wood pellets offer a huge energy return compared with the amount of fossil fuels needed to make them—11-times the return to be precise, Roed said. Green Circle Bio Energy buys round wood and lets the sun pre-dry it before it goes into a de-barker. The bark is used in the fuel to power part of the process. The wood is chopped, dried, run through a hammermill and a pellet press—an operation under such high pressures that the wood becomes fluid and its molecular structure altered. The wood is then bound together again in its new shape by the reformed lignin. Green Circle Bio Energy has entered into a longtime renewable energy contract with WFL Electric.

Biomass Investment Group Inc.'s Jim Wimberly discussed his company's energy farm project in Gulf Breeze, Fla., which will use a dedicated energy crop and fast pyrolysis for power production. "Fast pyrolysis is gaining attention, and we're developing proprietary technologies to improve it," Wimberly said. His company will be using E-grass to make 130 MW of power. The "E" in E-grass can stand for energy, environment, or anything you want, he said. The scientific name for the tall, perennial reed is arundo donax, and for years it has been used to make reeds for wind instruments. Reeds are made from the mature arundo donax, which grows one inch a day. For Wimberly's purposes the crop will be harvested prematurely from 20,000 acres of once-active farmland that's being planted to E-grass. Compared with the DOE's yield numbers on switchgrass, which can average 8 tons an acre per year, E-grass can produce 30 tons an acre per year. A 4:1 net energy production is achieved in this energy farm model. Solid feedstock goes in and, through fast pyrolysis, the solid E-grass becomes a gaseous material for slightly longer than a second, immediately after which it becomes pyrolysis oil for fuel to be used in combustion turbines to produce electrical power. The project will avoid the emission of 30 million tons of carbon that would otherwise come from a coal-based power plant, Wimberly said. The power produced isn't just carbon-neutral, but it is also carbon negative due to the reeds immense root systems used to sequester carbon from the air. Front-end engineering work is currently underway, the completion of which is expected next year.

Ron Kotrba is an Ethanol Producer Magazine senior staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.