Groundwork begins on Florida sweet sorghum-to-ethanol plant

By Susanne Retka Schill | April 15, 2013

Site preparation has begun and plans are being finalized for a formal groundbreaking ceremony to be held in the next few weeks at the country’s first sweet sorghum-to-ethanol plant being built by Southeast Renewable Fuels LLC in Hendry County, 15 miles of Clewiston, Fla.

The process technology for 20 MMgy plant is being supplied by Uni-Systems do Brasil Ltda, CEO Aaron Pepper said, and the facility is being built by them as well. Financing was arranged through the Bank of Brazil. “We give a big thanks to Uni-Systems, the Bank of Brazil, the state of Florida and Hendry County,” he added. “They’ve all been very supportive of our project.”

The groundbreaking has long been awaited. The project received a $2.5 million Florida Department of Energy grant in March 2009, had lined up financing and begun the permitting process in early 2010 when the progress was halted due to a third party issue, “that had nothing to do with us,” Pepper said.

The project is finally moving forward. Groundwork began in early April and the detailed earthwork preparing for the laying of foundations should begin in a couple of weeks, Pepper said. The first equipment is expected to arrive on site in October and the facility is scheduled to come online in January 2015. The footprint of the plant is being planned to allow the eventually doubling of its size, he added.

The integrated facility will include power generation and CO2 capture. The plant will produce 25 megawatts of electricity from bagasse in a combined heat and power plant. A yet-unnamed company will feed the projected 65,000 tons of CO2 into a liquid gas plant to be co-located on the 100-acre ethanol plant site. A letter of intent has been signed for for the CO2 capture, Pepper said. An offtake agreement is in place with Shell for the ethanol itself.

Located in the middle of Florida’s sugarcane production area, the ethanol plant will require about 25,000 acres of sweet sorghum production, figuring two harvests per year.  “During three years of field trials we were getting yields well above the published reports,” Pepper said. “And at 30 tons per acre, we actually might only need 18,000 acres of production.” They expect to be able to produce 800 gallons of ethanol per acre of feedstock.

The Clewiston project is located between Florida’s two big sugarcane processors, he added, both of whom have been supportive of the sweet sorghum project. “There’s a few advantages to sweet sorghum,” he explained. “First and foremost, it matures in four months, where sugarcane takes a full year.” Sweet sorghum is also reported to have two-thirds of the water and fertilizer requirement and will fit into the crop rotation needed by the main sugarcane crop. “There are 500,000 acres of cane grown in Florida,” he explained. “And 20 percent is fallow in a given year.”    

With the Clewiston project being built in the eastern edge of Hendry County, Pepper said planning has begun for a second facility that would ideally be located in the western part of the county. The project partners are also considering the addition of bolt-on technology to convert part of the bagasse into cellulosic ethanol.