It’s all about the stover
EMMETSBURG – Opinions and expectations ran from optimism to skepticism Tuesday when approximately 500 visitors, including farmers, policy makers and agricultural equipment manufacturers, met on a plot south of POET’s Emmetsburg plant to get an update on the development and future of cellulosic ethanol.
“It’s a little-realized thing that within 20 years ethanol could make up for almost all of our country’s fuel needs,” said Jeff Broin, CEO of POET Biorefining, speaking on the future of cornstalk- and cob-based fuels. “Within 10 years we think cellulosic can make up almost a quarter of that fuel and as we look ahead 20 years it could be more than 50 percent.”
POET, the world’s largest manufacturer of ethanol, is set to become the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol manufacturer, when a new 25 million gallon per year facility is completed in Emmetsburg and goes operational in 2011. POET has been developing cellulosic technology, called Project LIBERTY, at a pilot plant in Scotland, S.D.
The Department of Energy has committed $6.8 million, in a federally funded partnership with POET, to develop the needed technological infrastructure, that is, assist in covering the cost of purchasing cobs from producers. POET has also applied for an additional $13.1 million from DOE in 2010 to assist producers with installing equipment onto their combines that would auger cobs into collection wagons, rather than onto the ground.
POET’s field day, similar to its 2008 event, included in-field demonstrations of prototype equipment designed to collect residue, with several speakers discussing the politics and economics of cellulosic fuels.
While most attendees agreed that definite progress had been made over the previous year’s demonstrations, questions lingered about the basic factors of making cellulosic ethanol attractive to farmers.
Area producer Bob Parsons assented that a successful cellulosic industry could, “Be the new frontier,” but shared common concerns that it’s financial and operational viability have yet to be proven.
“When you look at this equipment you can see that a lot of effort has been made, but we just don’t know yet,” Parsons said. “We need to know all the logistics and there is obviously a lot left to do.”
Jay Van Roekel, segment manager for Vermeer, which is based in Pella, said he had fielded numerous questions about his and other companies’ solutions to making residue collection a seamless part of harvest-time activity.
“Farmers want to know,” Van Roekel said, “‘Can this work as part of my current system?’ At this point it is still hard to put a price to that in terms of dollars, but what they can see is we’re one step closer.”
A big need right now is developing cob specifications, he said. “Farmers know when they bring in a load of corn how it will be tested and graded. We need a similar set of standards for cobs.”
Following equipment demonstrations a panel of speakers, including Broin, Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge and General Wesley Clark took the stage to answer questions on these issues, including the larger picture of politics and economics of ethanol.
Jonathan Coppess, USDA Farm Service Agency administrator, provided a summary of FSA programs designed to assist farmers integrating biomass collection into their operations. The plan, collectively called the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, will include two parts – a component to match the price refiners pay for biomass, and creating assistance grants to help farmers buy equipment for collecting stover.
Scott Weishaar, POET vice president for research and development, said the these programs, as well as a forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency decision on whether or not to grant a waiver expanding the availability of E15 blended gasoline, will have significant impacts on the project. However, POET is projecting that farmers will be able to realize as much as a $23 per acre income for their participation in the initial program.
“We think this is a great opportunity, but when farmers come in we’re telling them to make sure it is something that works for them with or without the BCAP funding,” Weishaar said. “Starting today we have an office here in Emmetsburg specifically for the purpose of helping farmers figure out their costs and opportunities and figuring out if working with us is something that works for them.”
Judge and Clark focused their comments on the wider economic and political benefits of energy independence.
Judge said the governor’s office and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack would continue to support incentives for farmers and businesses to expand biorefining and development of cellulosic technologies, including encouraging the EPA to grant the waiver for E15 gasoline.
Clarke, a co-chair of Growth Energy, an ethanol supporting organization, praised the work being done at POET and said he champions biofuels because the cause is a common solution to spending money and becoming involved in conflicts overseas.
“Back in the ’70s I looked at this problem and I had to tell my superiors that, unless something changed, one day we might have to post troops in the Middle East to protect our interests in fossil fuels,” Clark said. “What I kept asking myself after that is why can’t we, as a nation, be smart enough to develop a solution that doesn’t involve sending people overseas to fight for something that we can produce and buy right here in the marketplace.”
In contrast to Clark’s international reading of the situation, area corn grower Ron Newhouse’s assessment of the situation tracked much closer to his field.
“The demonstrations were okay, but I was expecting a little more,” he said. “Some of the ideas here just aren’t consistent with continuous harvesting.
“A lot still depends on how much ethanol they can get out of shucks and cobs, because you have to know the value and the numbers before you take those materials off of your field.”
Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at email@example.com.
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