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Ethanol: Miracle or Mistake?

Bill Widmer
Cost Concerns: USDA researcher Bill Widmer is trying to make citrus waste a low-cost source for ethanol. “We still have a ways to go in improving the economics for producing ethanol from citrus processing waste,” Widmer says. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
At his global warming summit in Miami last year, Gov. Charlie Crist held out ethanol as a major tool in reducing greenhouse gases. No state, he said, can match Florida’s capacity to produce ethanol. Since virtually all the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, Crist was anticipating a time when Florida entrepreneurs could take various forms of cellulose that are plentiful in the state — citrus waste, sugar cane waste, plants and trees — and distill ethanol from them.

Following Crist’s green lead, the Legislature this year mandated that all gas sold in Florida have at least 10% ethanol by the end of 2010. That translates into Florida needing some 861 million gallons of ethanol annually in less than three years. At May’s going price for a gallon of ethanol, that’s $2.4 billion worth each year — money that the lawmakers don’t want to flow only to corn farmers and ethanol distillers in the Midwest. To spur production in Florida, the Legislature allocated $8 million this year for bioenergy project grants and another $7 million for renewable energy and efficiency grants.

MULTIMEDIA

Sources of Biofuel
You may be surprised what researchers are tapping for sources of ethanol and biodiesel — manure and citrus waste are just two.
Watch

That’s on top of the $60 million the state already has given to would-be ethanol developers and other biofuel researchers in Florida. “About every state has a cellulosic ethanol initiative,” says University of Florida professor Lonnie Ingram, who has a $20-million state grant to build a cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant with sugar maker Florida Crystals in Palm Beach County. “There’s a lot of money being put into this area.”

Lonnie Ingram
Sweet solution?: UF professor Lonnie Ingram’s patented method of producing ethanol from sugar cane waste may actually generate water rather than consume it. The breakthrough came 17 years ago, however, and there’s still no refinery. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Indeed. The federal government, which has been pushing cellulosic ethanol for more than 30 years without so much as one commercial refinery to show for it, has mandated 36 billion gallons of ethanol — 16 billion from cellulose — in use by 2022 and is funding a host of research efforts around the country.

But even as the government pours out research dollars and ethanol-use mandates, new questions have arisen — and old questions persist — about whether ethanol can live up to its billing as the clean, green path to energy independence.

Aside from the now-debated question whether ethanol may actually be worse for the environment than fossil fuels, cost and risk remain a big issue, even with oil spiking northward of $130 a barrel.

Chemically, ethanol’s not hard to make — it’s just a matter of distilling alcohol from sugar. “Everybody who has moonshined” knows how to make ethanol, says Ali Raissi, director of the University of Central Florida’s advanced energy division, who is leading research on a state grant. The problem is that it’s technologically hard and expensive to break down cellulose, the woody parts of plants and trees, into a fermentable, simple sugar.

Orange Peel

Reality Check
» Ethanol Source:Citrus Waste — If the shrinking citrus industry reverts to historic volumes, citrus waste could produce 90 million gallons of ethanol — that’s enough, at Florida’s rate of fuel consumption, for 38 days’ worth of ethanol, assuming the state has moved to a 10%-ethanol, 90%-gasoline mix. If cars burned 100% ethanol, citrus waste could generate enough ethanol to replace gasoline for just under four days. “You’re not going to solve our fuel problem with citrus waste,” says USDA researcher Bill Widmer. Clewiston based Citrus Energy has a $2.5-million grant to build a 4-million gallon ethanol refinery.

USDA researcher Bill Widmer [“Starter Fuel,” May 2006, FloridaTrend.com] is among the few researchers who have developed reliable numbers on the cost. He has been working for four years at reducing the cost of turning citrus waste to ethanol, building off research dating to the early 1990s. Widmer, of the USDA’s agriculture research service citrus lab in Winter Haven, says that four years ago the enzymes needed to convert citrus waste to a fermentable sugar cost $12 to $15 per gallon, which would make $4-a-gallon gas a bargain. While he still has processing issues to resolve, he now has the enzyme cost down to just 80 to 90 cents per gallon. While that’s “still quite expensive,” he says, it has made citrus-waste ethanol “more than” price competitive with corn-based ethanol after the value of co-products such as limonene, which is used as a food additive and as a solvent, is included.

In theory, at least. Currently, citrus waste is made into animal feed. Now, just as the ethanol arithmetic has started to make economic sense, the rising price of corn has driven the price of animal feed upward, making citrus waste more attractive in the short term financially for growers to sell as a feed source. “We still have a ways to go in improving the economics for producing ethanol from citrus processing waste to prove there would be a clear advantage making the conversion (from animal feed production) to produce ethanol,” Widmer says.

Reality Check
» Ethanol Source:
Sugar — Brazil produces plenty of ethanol from sugar cane, but it’s a non-starter in Florida. Florida has insufficient suitable land for sugar cane ethanol on any substantial basis. United States EnviroFuels says it will potentially use sugar cane syrup as a supplement at a sweet sorghum ethanol plant in Highlands County.
[Photo: USDA/Scott Bauer]

Sugarcane

Producing ethanol also can require copious water. At three gallons of water per gallon of ethanol — some methods require more — meeting the state’s ethanol quota with Florida-produced ethanol would translate into using an additional 2.5 billion gallons of water each year in a state already struggling with the demand on its water resources.

Some experts question ethanol’s green friendliness in other ways. Princeton University researcher Tim Searchinger touched off widespread biofuel skepticism earlier this year in a Science magazine study that looked at how growing crops for fuel drives changes in land use. Searchinger favors using waste products as fuel sources. But he says using citrus waste for ethanol could be a poor choice in terms of greenhouse gas emissions if it induces growers to cultivate untouched land to grow animal feed to replace the citrus waste.

Sorghum

Reality Check
» Ethanol Source: Sweet Sorghum — It’s easy to grow, but harvested sorghum loses half its sugar content in 24 hours, so it has to be processed fast, and the harvest has to be spread out over a long period of time. If sorghum displaces food crops, it will lose points greenwise. Florida gave a $1.5-million grant to Gainesville-based Renergie to build a refinery and mechanical harvesting system for sweet sorghum. Renergie’s Brian Donovan envisions small, 5-million-gallon refineries scattered throughout new sorghum growing areas.
[Photo: USDA/Larry Rana]

Ingram, the UF researcher, would seem to have the solution for all. He says he hopes his cellulosic ethanol process will be not only water neutral, but also may generate water. His pilot refinery also will use a farming byproduct rather than a crop — sugar bagasse, the crushed sugar cane stalks left over after the sugar juice is extracted. (It later will use yard and wood waste, among other sources.)

At present, sugar industry titan Florida Crystals burns that bagasse along with yard waste from Palm Beach County to generate electricity at its Okeelanta site, the largest biomass co-generation energy plant in North America. Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals’ government relations vice president, says the expectation is that Ingram’s process will first refine the bagasse into ethanol. Then the part of the bagasse that can’t become fuel will be burned for electricity. Ingram’s cellulosic ethanol breakthrough first was patented 17 years ago, however, and there’s still no refinery.

Forest

Reality Check
» Ethanol Source: Forests —This is where the
sugar bagasse and cellulosic ethanol researchers are headed because Florida is said to have abundant woody biomass. Jarek Novak, a state forestry division forest utilization specialist, estimates Florida’s timberlands — not counting wood already used by the industry — has enough excess trees, understory plants, logging residue and so on to generate sufficient cellulosic ethanol, assuming 50 gallons per ton of biomass, to replace 6.3% of Florida’s gasoline consumption. The state produces an estimated 7.9 million tons of yard waste. At 50 gallons a ton, that would be 393 million gallons of ethanol.

At least two other researchers using state grants are working on other ways to make bagasse into fuel. But since there’s not enough bagasse to fuel Florida, state officials are banking on making cellulosic ethanol out of everything from suburban yard trimmings to wood from Florida’s forests. It didn’t get encouraging news in June when Florida agribusiness firm and land developer Alico announced it was abandoning plans to build a plant in LaBelle that would have turned yard, wood and agricultural residue into ethanol, hydrogen, ammonia and electricity. The company said it wouldn’t take the $33-million federal grant that would have helped build the plant because the risks outweighed “any reasonably anticipated benefits for Alico.”

Ethanol, meanwhile, isn’t immune from the normal hiccups that accompany any startup industry. United States Envirofuels, holder of a $7-million state grant, encountered opposition from a neighboring community to its plans to build a $60-million sweet sorghum ethanol refinery in Highlands County. Brad Krohn, the company’s president, says he will now build at a location near the one originally proposed.

Cantens
Reality Check
» Ethanol Source: Sugar Bagasse —
At least three researchers in Florida and one proposed refinery are pursuing the crushed cane, left over after the sugar is extracted, as a source for ethanol. Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals’ government relations vice president, says his company will supply Lonnie Ingram’s plant with the bagasse it needs to refine into ethanol. The part that can’t become fuel will be burned for electricity. Florida Crystals already burns bagasse along with yard waste to generate electricity. [Photo: Jessica Klewicki]

Similar siting problems are likely all over Florida. Transporting the source crop for ethanol to the refinery drives up its costs, so Florida will need a score or more of small refineries scattered throughout the state to efficiently exploit timberland as an ethanol source.

And just because a technology carries a “green” label doesn’t mean local residents will welcome an ethanol refinery. “It’s a big boondoggle,” says Joy Towles Ezell, a Taylor County farm owner and president of the Florida League of Conservation Voters and a member of the suspended Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposed agrifuels. She says biofuel production is polluting and unsustainable and biofuel crop maximization is bad for soils and water supplies. The national organization shut down the Florida chapter this year, with the suspension attributed variously to internal troubles within the Florida chapter and its tougher stance on fuel crops than the national group.

The division over biofuels among the environmentally minded extends beyond the Sierra Club’s intramural squabble. The Nature Conservancy’s Richard Hilsenbeck, associate director of protection, generally favors cellulosic ethanol. He reasons that by keeping the timber industry prosperous, Florida will see fewer treetops giving way to rooftops. Audubon of Florida policy director Eric Draper says his organization supports renewable energy. But his group worries that the state’s 10% mandate will mean more corn ethanol, which it objects to, and importing Brazilian ethanol, which is currently kept out by tariffs. Draper says it will also create incentives for growers to switch to fast-growing trees at the expense of water resources and forest diversity. “For us, the jury’s out until we see if the source works,” he says.

Draper notes the number of lobbyists in the last legislative session representing interests that stand to gain from the energy bill; he wonders about a green bubble and the state spending. “It’s a question of how much money government is going to throw at this stuff before they realize it doesn’t work,” he says. “We’re chasing the energy solution and postponing the hard discussion on the real solution, which is conservation and efficiency.”

Chipper
Reality Check
» Ethanol Source: Pulp and Paper Mill Waste —
A non-starter. Nearly all of it already is used to power the industry’s plants.

Ethanol’s difficulties also prompt other questions: If ethanol, which has been around as vehicle fuel for more than 100 years, is so difficult to pull off, how tough will it be to achieve Crist’s other energy goals? Specifically, Crist wants Florida’s utilities by 2025, when its population is projected to be north of 23 million, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, when the state’s population was 13 million.

But with the state and federal government dictating ethanol use, an ethanol process doesn’t have to prove cheaper, more efficient or more environmentally friendly than gas; it just has to prove superior to the other alternatives to meet the government-required demand. “Congress in its wisdom has said we’re going to have 36 billion gallons of this stuff no matter what the cost,” says Princeton’s Searchinger.

And so it’s inevitable that Florida entrepreneurs and researchers will continue to chase ethanol development. Ingram says that once ground is broken on his Florida plant it will take two years to build. He’s convinced that a few months of operation will prove cellulosic ethanol’s economic and technologic viability. Others then will see the investment risk of building more as worthwhile, he says. “The technology is there. The hang-up is in building the first one.”