Business Outlook Survey: Bioenergy Industry Is Optimistic

The results of the latest Biofuels Digest/BIO Quarterly Business Outlook Survey show that 85 percent of bioenergy industry executives say they are more optimistic than 12 months ago both about their organization’s prospects for growth and industry growth. Biofuels Digest drew comparisons to the previous two Business Outlook Surveys, conducted in September 2010 and December 2010.

Nearly 20 percent of respondents predicted that their organization’s revenue would increase 11 to 24 percent in the coming year, while an additional 17 percent predicted more modest growth in the 5 to 10 percent range. Likewise, more than 40 percent of respondents projected industry revenue growth in the 5 to 10 percent range.

The biggest drivers of growth for organizations, each identified by more than 40 percent of respondents, were rising demand for alternative fuels, new technology or intellectual property, and partnering in R&D, production and marketing.

The survey received responses from more than 700 executives in the bioenergy sector.

Raining on Cellulosic Ethanol’s Parade

Writer Alyssa Danigelis posted an item of interest on Discovery News last month detailing the latest supposed “blow” to the biofuel industry. The writer highlights a new study in Agronomy Journal in which Kansas State University Assistant Professor Humberto Blanco-Canqui concludes, “Only a small fraction (about 25%) of residue might be available for removal, depending on soil type and climate. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible.”

Matt Merritt of POET and Professor Bruce Dale of Michigan State University have posted responses to Blanco-Canqui’s conclusion. What they drive at is that the fraction of agricultural residue that can be removed from a field depends greatly on the geography and management of that field. Jim Hettenhaus of CEA Inc. has helped lead a study in Imperial, Neb., to determine optimum stover removal and storage practices based on local variables in soil type and weather, and he was kind enough to share preliminary results (See Stover Value Review). And several years ago, BIO published a study, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, that indicates the amount of residue removed from a field can be increased through adoption of no-till soil management.

The economic feasibility of harvesting crop residues for cellulosic biofuel production, of course, is highly dependent on the individual farmer. Aside from its value in managing organic carbon in tilled soil, crop residues are also currently used as animal bedding and other things. Individual farmers are thus faced with a decision whether the biofuel market for crop residues is attractive enought to induce them to change their field management practices, buy new harvesting equipment, and forego current uses of residues to instead transport them to a collection or storage facility. The same economic question faces any farmer who considers growing switchgrass or short-rotation woody crops, which are favored by Blanco-Canqui. And for the most part, biofuel production does not yet provide a compelling market for farmers, although POET and others have begun contracting directly with farmers to harvest and deliver small, easily harvested amounts of residues to pilot production plants.

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption behind many academic and press articles is that cellulosic ethanol “proposes turning waste into something useful.” Considering the costs of trash removal for most cities, even trash won’t be considered “waste” if it becomes a valuable feedstock for biofuels. Just as pernicious, perhaps, is the industry’s assumption that an apparently abundant resource is naturally a cheap resource. Inevitably, these assumptions have led everyone to search for the perfect energy source – one that doesn’t compete with food production, doesn’t require petroleum fertilizers, and doesn’t come with the dreaded “unintended consequences.” A far better plan would be to seek sources that best fit a local area, and then look for ways to manage them in economically and environmentally sound ways.

Ways and Means Should Include Job Creation of Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts in Green Jobs Leg

On Wednesday, April 14 the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on Energy Tax Incentives Driving the Green Job Economy. The focus of the hearing is to examine the effectiveness of current energy tax policy and identify additional steps that the Committee can take to ensure continued job growth in this area while at the same time advancing national energy policy focus on a discussion of current and proposed energy tax incentives. Witnesses for this hearing have not been announced and we do not know how much of the hearing will focus on transportation fuels however, energy tax incentives for biofuels and biobased products should be a significant area of focus for this round of green jobs legislation. These technologies are ready to deploy and create near term job opportunities.

Industrial biotechnology is the key enabling technology for producing biofuels and biobased products like bioplastics and renewable chemicals to aid in reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the ability to crate jobs, jobs that are currently moving overseas due to their reliance on petroleum as a feedstock or more favorable economic or political environments.

The United States has invested considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars to try to revive our economy. Too often, though, the resulting jobs are being created overseas, as other countries invest in green technology deployment. As a result, the opportunity to improve our economic competitiveness is lost. The United States is a leader in the research and development of green technologies, but to maintain that lead we must invest in the companies that are putting that green technology to work in our economy. These industries have shed hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs over the past two decades, as petroleum producing countries have attracted more capital investment. For example, U.S. chemical and plastics companies have increased capital investment outside the United States by 32 percent over the past decade, while increasing investment within U.S. borders by only 2 percent.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) enacted as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 sets the minimum level of renewable fuel that must be produced and blended into the US transportation fuel supply at 36 billion gallons by 2022. 21 billion gallons of that requirement must be cellulosic or advanced biofuels. Direct job creation from the advanced and cellulosic biofuels volumes in the RFS could reach 29,000 by 2010, rising to 190,000 by 2022. Total job creation could reach 123,000 in 2010 and 807,000 by 2022. Jobs will be across many sectors of the economy. Some projected job creation sectors are: labor/freight, mixing and blending machine operators, shopping/receiving/traffic clerks, truck drivers, chemical equipment/technicians, chemical plant/system operators/electrical, sales etc.

The Ways and Means Committee can aid in accelerating this job creation by incentivizing biorefinery construction here in the United States. In 2008 Congress enacted a cellulosic biofuels production tax credit and enhanced depreciation for advanced biofuels facilities as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, both of which are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Due to an overall downturn in the worldwide economy, this tax credit has not yet been utilized by cellulosic biofuels producers. This credit needs to be extended now in order to signal to investors that a plant being constructed this year, will have certainty in the availability of that tax credit once the plant begins to produce the advanced biofuel. A tax credit that expires before or shortly after production begins, does not create economic security for a yet to be built advanced biofuel biorefinery looking for funding. Furthermore, capital costs for construction of next generation biorefineries, which utilize renewable biomass to produce next generation biofuels and biobased products, are a substantial barrier to commercialization. Congress should provide an investment tax credit to help accelerate construction of next generation biorefineries and speed deployment of next generation fuels, chemicals and products.

Historically, the U.S. chemicals and plastics industry was the envy of the world. At its peak in the 1950s, the industry was responsible for over 5 million domestic jobs and a $20 billion positive trade balance for the United States. Jobs associated with the industry were typically among the highest paid in U.S. manufacturing. However, the petro-chemicals and plastics industries are now hemorrhaging jobs overseas. Conversely, biobased products and chemicals production, like domestically produced biofuels, will stay in the U.S., in close proximity to their biomass feedstocks. Total US employment in the chemicals industry declined by over 20% in the last two decades and is projected to decrease further. The US is a world leader in industrial biotechnology with a wide range of companies pioneering new, renewable pathways to traditional petroleum-based chemicals and plastics.

The potential job creation from bio-products is immense. Consider that the nascent biobased products industry employed over 5,700 Americans at 159 facilities in 2007 and every new job in the chemical industry creates 5.5 additional jobs elsewhere in the economy. Currently the biobased products portion represents only about 4 percent of all sales for the industry. Congress should create targeted production tax credits that can help them to expand their share of the market and grow additional domestic jobs. With an industry with the potential to grow by over 50% per year, bio-products can form the basis for a strong employment growth engine for the US.

Clearly commercializing the advanced biofuels and biobased products industries is an integral solution to creating high caliber domestic green jobs in the United States that will catapult this country to be a leader in successful high tech, sustainable technologies. BIO will be urging the Ways and Means Committee through written comments to recognize that innovations such as these are some of the most promising sources of green jobs and economic growth for the future.

It’s Food AND Fuel

Last week SustainableBusiness.com posted the story, “Bill To Extend Ethanol Tax Credit Reignites Fuel vs. Food Debate.”

They write,

A bill introduced in the US House last week would extend ethanol tax credits for another five years, to 2015. This tax credit is set to expire on December 31, 2010. If extended, the tax credits will provide the conventional ethanol industry with $30 billion over five years.

They quoted Kate McMahon, Energy Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth who said,

The oil and ethanol industries need no further help from the American people. This money should be invested in more cutting-edge, clean, and renewable energy that won’t cause environmental degradation and increase food prices.

Food prices? Not so fast, here are a few facts.

World population growth is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Demand for food, energy, resources, and agricultural productivity is expected to increase at a faster rate, due to increased demand for dietary protein, primarily in developing countries. Accordingly the challenge is to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and biofuel within existing land constraints.

For those concerned about food you should know that:

  • Wheat and soy production have been increasing outside the U.S. since 1970 and that U.S. biofuel production since 2000 shows no impact on these trends.
  • U.S. yields of corn have consistently outpaced the world average. Furthermore, the overall harvested acreage for corn production under the renewable fuel standard is projected to remain stable due to continued yield gains.
  • In the U.S. agriculture has become more sustainable. Since 1980 productivity has increased, even while agricultural inputs have declined.
  • The increase in sustainable agriculture extends outside the boundaries of the U.S. Agricultural productivity gains in the last 20 years worldwide have been accomplished with fewer energy and water inputs per bushel, reduced soil loss, and mitigated climate impacts.

Add all that together and then add the fact that cropland in the U.S. is concentrated in the Midwest and Plains. Other areas have biomass potential in grassland and managed forests.

So that means that there is enough room for food AND fuel.

DOE Awards Grants to Biofuel, Chemical Biorefineries

Last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced 19 biomass projects that would receive renewable energy grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The list included 14 pilot, 4 demonstration, and 1 commercial-scale project, receiving a total of $561 million in grants ranging in size from $2.5 million to $81 million. The projects will be located in 15 different states.

Additionally, Vilsack announced a $54.5 million Biorefinery Assistance Program loan guarantee for Sapphire Energy, one of the projects that received a grant to turn algae into jet fuel and diesel. The project will be constructed in Columbus, New Mexico.

Most interesting about the list is that it is not limited to liquid transportation biofuels. Many of the projects will co-produce renewable chemicals — specifically mentioned are plans to produce potassium acetate, ethyl acrylate, and succinic acid.

The grants are intended to underwrite an equal share of private investment in the projects. That may confound the prediction of Seeking Alpha’s Neil Dikeman, who predicts, “The last petal of the last bloom off the biofuel rose falls by the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 2010.” While small biofuels producers may not have “the horsepower, expertise, or balance sheet” to compete against the oil giants, the production of renewable and specialty chemicals may provide a handhold in the market.

BIO Pacific Rim Summit: Status of Cellulosic Ethanol Commercialization

Qteros, ZeaChem and Verenium presented updates on their efforts to bring three unique cellulosic ethanol processes to commercial status.

Qteros CTO Kevin Gray described how the company’s Q Microbe™ (Clostridium phytofermentans) enables a single step (consolidated bioprocessing) conversion and fermentation process for fuels. This approach can save as much as 40 percent in production costs. Qteros is currently scaling its technology up for a 100 liter laboratory bioreactor.

ZeaChem President and CEO Jim Imbler outlined the challenges facing the industry, which include the need for coherent government policy to help the industry make it through the “Valley of Death,” which he described as the stage between proving that a technology works and attracting enough investment to make it a reality. Raising capital for a first-of-its-kind project is particularly difficult, Imbler noted. Traditional project finance is not available; but companies could move forward with a combination of strategic investors and short-term government support.

Zeachem uses a Clostridium thermoaceticum found in the gut of termites to produce acetic acid, which is then converted to ethyl acetate and ethanol. They are constructing a demonstration-scale plant expected to be online in 2010.

Bill Baum of Verenium then described the status of the company’s joint venture with BP, Vercipia Biofuels, which is building a commercial scale cellulosic biofuel plant in Highlands County, Fla. and seeking a site for a second facility.

An audio recording of the webinar can be downloaded from BIO.org.

Pacific Rim Summit — Biobutanol: Overcoming the Barriers

The biobutanol panel at the 2009 Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy had three dynamic speakers from the biobutanol industry: Pat Gruber, CEO of Gevo, Inc.; Jay Kouba, CEO of Tetravitae Bioscience and Rick Wilson, CEO of Cobalt Technologies. Besides the individual company presentations the conversation concentrated on technology, risk, barriers and financing on the path to commercialization.

Jay Kouba related to the audience that the business plan with the best technology is often not the one that makes it to commercialization; the path to commercialization is often paved by the plans with the lowest barriers to commercialization.

Pat Gruber of Gevo started the session off by giving background on his company, Gevo Inc., founded in 2005. Gevo’s biobutanol plans center around retrofitting corn ethanol plants to produce isobutanol. The main thing Gevo is concerned with is access to cheap feedstock, they will make their fuel out of whatever is most economically viable, currently sugarcane and grain, but eventually cellulosic feedstocks will be used. Gevo has a 1 million gallon demonstration plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Gevo also has business plans for renewable gasoline, jet fuel and isobutylene for use in such products as rubbers and plastics. These molecules will serve as building blocks for the chemical industry and they are beneficial, because the chemical industry already knows what to do with them. Gevo plans to have a commercial plant (20-50 million gallons per year) operating in 2011.

Tetravitae will be focusing on the chemical industry for their butanol to take advantage of what they see as a weak point in the petrochemical web. They are focusing on finding a low capital route that they can get to market quickly and follow up with improvements, and they see many opportunities with biobutanol for chemicals. Tetravitae will be using a similar business plan to Gevo in retrofitting corn dry mill plants for production. Tetravitae has partnered with the University of Illinois to develop the organism they are using. Mr. Kouba said that their process is already cost competitive and they are planning on having a demonstration facility operating in 2010 and a commercial facility up and running in 2011.

Rick Wilson’s company, Cobalt Technologies, is focusing on commercializing their cellulosic butanol for fuels and chemicals business. The big question for them was, “What’s going to make the biggest difference and be the most cost effective cellulosic biofuel on the market?” The answer was biobutanol. According to Mr. Wilson, the advantage of this renewable fuel is that 15 billion gallons is mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard, it has an estimated 70 to 90 percent reduction in lifecycle assessment in greenhouse gases versus petroleum, increases fuel efficiency, lowers tailpipe emissions and is compatible with existing fuel infrastructure. Cobalt Technologies is interested in a venture with high margins that requires low capital investments. Rick made the observation that the most important cost for them is the price of the feedstock. Cobalt currently has pilot plants constructed in Colorado and California with a 200,000 gallon per year facility planned for operation in 2011 and a 15 million gallon per year facility planned for 2013.

All of the speakers agreed that access to capital is a barrier to commercialization, and education for the public, the regulatory community and opinion leaders such as Members of Congress on the benefits and technological attributes of biobutanol is a priority. Lively discussion and debate followed during the question and answer portion of the session. Stay tuned as biobutanol moves forward into commercialization for fuels and chemicals.