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POET Biorefining holds Project LIBERTY event

By Staff | Nov 4, 2009

Demonstrators harvest the corn stover which is part of the biomass used in the cellulosic ethanol process. EDN photos by Michael Tidemann

POET Biorefining gave area ag producers a firsthand look at cellulosic ethanol production Tuesday with an open house for Project LIBERTY.

Construction will start on the plant next year and be finished by 2011.

The plant will use corn cobs to make ethanol, a process that the U.S. Department of Energy endorsed by giving an additional $6.85 million in funding from an existing grant. The plant will employ 35-40 workers, 60 employees who will haul 700 tons of cellulosic biomass a day and 200 part-time farm laborers for the plant, said Matt Merritt, POET media relations specialist.

It’s the first of two funding increases from the DOE to help POET make a market for corn cobs. The second, which is expected next year, will provide another $13.15 million. The additional money will be used to develop a feedstock infrastructure for cellulosic ethanol production. POET will work with equipment manufacturers to get cob-harvesting technology into the fields.

Leftover waste will be used to generate power for the plant.

“DOE has shown an incredible commitment to speeding the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol,” said POET CEO Jeff Broin. “With this grant, we’ll be able to help farmers take advantage of this new revenue stream while helping our nation realize all the benefits of cellulosic ethanol.”

The 25-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant will be attached to the current 56-million-gallon plant at Emmetsburg.

POET has operated a pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Scotland, S.D. since November 2008.

The two grant increases will boost to $100 million the DOE’s financial commitment to Project LIBERTY.

Broin, who was on hand for Tuesday’s event, said when the price of natural gas and inputs are concerned, coupled with oil at between $50 to $70 a barrel, cellulosic ethanol becomes profitable.

Tuesday’s event was geared toward farmers who might want to contract to sell their corn stover.

Jim Sturdevant, director of POET Project LIBERTY, said the plant will be one of the first cellulosic-based ethanol plants in the world.

Scott Weishaar, vice president of commercial development for POET, praised DOE incentives that will be used to buy equipment.

That was a good introduction for Jonathan Coppess, United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency administrator, who talked about the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, part of the 2008 farm bill.

According to Coppess, the program was established to help producers growing new bioenergy crops. He said payments will match what ethanol plants pay for hauling, up to $45.

“You guys are the cutting edge of this new energy economy,” Coppess said, praising POET and Project LIBERTY.

Patty Judge, lieutenant governor and former Iowa ag secretary, was understandably effusive in her praise for the project.

“I want to thank everyone here at POET for their commitment to energy and their commitment to Iowa,” Judge said. “Not long ago this sort of event would not have been possible.”

Judge traced the progress from the early days of “gasohol” and the associated myths of ethanol-blended fuel.

“It was a slow and sometimes pretty contentious process,” Judge said. “I know the awesome power of biofuels was going to become a reality. Cellulosic ethanol is here and it is viable. This project is helping to keep Iowa on the forefront of renewable energy.”

One may have suspected from Judge’s remarks that if anything is not going to be on the chopping block in Governor Culver’s mandated 10 percent cut in state funding, it will be the state energy fund.

“Governor Culver and I will do what we can to increase the demand for ethanol across the state of Iowa,” Judge said, underscoring her hope that the Environmental Protection Agency rules favorably for E-15.

“Project LIBERTY is revolutionizing Iowa ethanol production,” Judge said.

After remarks by Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.), former NATO supreme allied commander and current co-chair of Growth Energy, a trade organization for the biofuels industry, Broin praised Wesley’s leadership for the industry.

“He’s been just a great, great advocate for this industry,” Broin said.

Broin also thanked 16 ag companies that brought equipment for demonstrations through the day, as well as the farmers attending.

Broin said in 10 years, ethanol production can easily double the current 14 billion gallons of production yearly to 28 billion, plus another 10 billion from cellulosic production. He said over the next 20 years ethanol has the potential to almost replace gasoline as a fuel source.

“It also gives us the opportunity for the Midwest to become the Mideast,” Broin said.

Acknowledging that two years ago he would have said cellulosic ethanol was a long shot, Broin said POET has perfected the process in its model plant in Scotland, S.D.

“The technology’s available,” Broin said. “We need you to make this happen. We need you to deliver this biomass.”

In a press conference following the formal presentation, Judge said she and Governor Culver were aggressively moving forward with the state’s support of the biofuels industry.

“The governor and I believe this is not a time to sit on your hands,” Judge said. “This is the next phase. I think the potential is unlimited.”

Clark supported a mandate for E-15 but emphasized there should be country-of-origin labeling for ethanol.

Coppess discussed the FSA’s commitment to match dollar-for-dollar what ethanol plants pay for stover delivery up to $45. “It’s a great opportunity to get started,” Coppess said.

Weishaar said POET will make contracts of three to five years with farmers for their stover. With 60 farmers signed up to date, he hopes for contracts with 400-450 producers to support the plant.