News & Events

August 22, 2018

Pennsylvania’s Next Biorefinery: Discussion Held at the Penn State Energy Days Annual Conference, 2018

Advanced BioFuels USA

 

August 22, 2018

by Anahita Bharadwaj (Pennsylvania State University for Advanced Biofuels USA) Energy Days, 2018 at The Pennsylvania State University- University Park, brought together leading researchers, government agencies, industries, non-profit organizations and academics in the field of energy to understand the current challenges in this area. This year saw some inspiring and enthusiastic discussion related to various sectors of the energy economy.

“Pennsylvania’s Next Biorefinery” with the Future in Mind

Among the many sessions was a section titled “Pennsylvania’s Next Biorefinery” which was aimed at discussing the potential for Pennsylvania to expand its biorefinery sector and examine the various strategies and challenges associated with the biorefinery industry. The three panelists, Mr. Randy LeTang, Mr. Fred Moesler and Mr. Tim Winters gave a very comprehensive overview of the biofuel industry and its current status. They touched upon various topics including technology development and application, production capacities, feedstock logistics and federal policies that impact the industry.

The session was mediated by Dr. Dan Ciolkosz, Assistant Research Professor at Penn State’s Agricultural and Biological Engineering department, who opened the discussion with the challenge that a strategy for biorefineries must be made thinking not only about the present, but also with the future in mind. He emphasized the importance of having relevant conversations about bioenergy and understanding the knowhow to develop these technologies for a sustainable future.

SG Preston—Non-Disruptive Solutions

Following this, the first speaker, Mr. Randy LeTang, discussed concepts related to a commercial-scale, fully integrated biorefinery and explained that this can be modeled for the production of various fuels such as renewable diesel, renewable jet fuel, light Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), renewable Naphtha, etc. Mr. LeTang is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of SG Preston, a leading bioenergy company that is committed to providing its clients with turnkey bioenergy solutions that are non-disruptive to their overall operations. He explained that in the last ten years, commitment to renewable energy and cutting carbon emissions, although it may have begun as a trend, has now started to affect the bottom-lines in business operations and is now a strategic imperative.

Customers and stakeholders have pushed companies to make long-term commitments to sustainable energy and, therefore, bioenergy has now become serious business. Bioenergy companies also bring jobs to nearby communities by allowing communities otherwise reliant on traditional industries such as farming, coal and steel, to expand their job offerings for their existing and newly trained talent pools, resulting in a higher retention ratio of local talent, and creating a win-win situation for stakeholders, the company and the environment.

Mr. LeTang noted that there is lot of potential capital available for investment in renewable energy. However, there is not a lot of interest to invest heavily in it due in part to unsuccessful attempts in the past. Risk mitigation, reliability and predictability can attract more investors to this field.

Another important issue is to demystify the concept of “feedstock”. Mr. LeTang stated that many may not realize it but feedstock in biorefineries is in many ways not any different than crude oil for oil companies – they are just as difficult to work with but just as valuable. Each feedstock grows differently in each region based on weather, soil and other conditions. Therefore, from a biorefinery standpoint, it makes less sense to commit to one feedstock and makes more sense to include several feedstocks into the production model.

Renmatix’s Plantrose Sugars and Lignin

The next panel member to speak was Mr. Fred Moesler, Chief Technology Officer for Renmatix, a technology company that converts plant material to its constituent sugars and lignins through a patented process known as Plantrose.

This is a two-step process using hot water followed by supercritical water (water at extremely high temperature and pressure) to depolymerize lignocellulosic biomass. It is feedstock agnostic and has been successfully applied to various feedstocks such as woody biomass, sugarcane bagasse, corn stover etc. to produce xylose, glucose, lignin, crystalline cellulose and other soluble oligomer products. The deconstructed plant material can be used to make base chemicals and fuels as well as being used for other purposes.

Mr. Moesler expressed that while this process is very effective in treating feedstock for its use in fermentation, it has been difficult to penetrate into a market that has seen several other failures.

Fluctuation in crude oil prices has also increased the uncertainty of investment in the biofuels industry. Furthermore, feedstock logistics is a long-standing issue in providing a reliable and long-term supply of biomass material required for biofuels production.

While this is generally the case, this problem is further augmented by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard’s (RFS) definition of biomass for biofuels. The RFS defines particular biomass as “renewable biomass” and provides Renewable Identification Numbers (RIN) credits to companies that use this biomass to produce energy. If a company uses the RFS defined renewable biomass, they generate RIN credits which would otherwise have to be bought separately in order to compensate for not using the renewable biomass.

However, the RFS largely excludes naturally regenerating forest woody biomass in its definition of renewable biomass, although this type of wood has been used in industries for decades. Only planted wood, planted by either machine or by hand, fits the definition as it is today.  Therefore, this closes doors to a large section of easily available biomass as potential feedstock for biorefineries.

Mr. Moesler and many other participants in this session echoed the concept that properly managed forest and timberland (as is currently done) can both fix atmospheric carbon dioxide through the generation of growing forests (as opposed to mature forests) while providing a good supply of biomass for bioenergy. Mr. Moesler, therefore, suggested that while Big Oil may like to remove the RIN program and Big Corn may prefer to keep its focus on corn-based biofuels, bioenergy companies like Renmatix would very much like it to be modified to create more encouragement and opportunity for lignocellulosic biofuels.

On the subject of potential biorefineries in Pennsylvania, Mr. Moesler indicated that Pennsylvania has great potential because it has a strong petrochemical, manufacturing and agricultural community. PA has a lot of forest land that has long been harvested for industrial purposes. One scenario for biorefinery development in the region may involve technologies producing biochemicals (as opposed to fuels) with sugar cost as the primary driver.

Biofuels Industry Challenges and Opportunities

The last panel speaker, Mr. Tim Winters, is the CEO of Western New York Energy (WNY Energy), a corn ethanol company founded in 2004. It’s biorefinery is currently running at 62-million-gallon production with a capacity to go up to 70 million gallons. The company also extracts corn oil and recovers carbon dioxide which it sells as food grade carbon dioxide. Mr. Winters gave a very comprehensive overview of advantages and disadvantages of being involved in the biofuels industry in the US.

Mr. Winters also mentioned that with increasing mandates to use renewable energy globally, the US can benefit through export of ethanol to other countries such as China, India, Philippines and Canada where they do not yet have production capacity to meet their full demands.

Furthermore, sustainable biofuels can contribute to energy independence and prevent military intervention in hostile countries while at the same time, aiding farmers and local communities through job creation and cleaning our air.

Mr. Winters cautioned that currently there is an oversupplied domestic market of ethanol in the US due in part to the RVP restriction on ethanol blending into gasoline to a maximum of 10% for many fuel stations during the summer months in the US. Some independent retailers have begun selling 15% blend gasoline (E15) but we need more domestic market penetration to create the required demand in the market.

The US domestic market is set to receive a total of about 200 million gallons of additional annualized ethanol production at the end of this year with no foreseeable increase in demand for ethanol. Therefore, the market is over supplied and export is currently not a dependable option long term due to the uncertain international trade environment.

He also mentioned that construction costs for new biorefineries is higher, quoting an average of $1.60 per gallon-per-year in construction costs in 2007 but $1.90 today. This results in a $20-40 million increase in construction costs alone.

Adding to this, regulatory uncertainty with the RIN market and EPA’s inconsistent enforcement of the RFS mandates does not enthuse stakeholders to invest heavily in bioenergy at this time.

Mr. Winters pointed out that in some situations, refiners (RFS obligated parties) that are opposed to the RFS choose to pay more for the RIN credits than to blend more biofuels. Therefore, there is limited incentive to stick to low carbon initiatives at this time.

Lastly, Mr. Winters indicated that misleading advertising, a general environment of protectionism, and hesitation in financing bioenergy projects as some of the roadblocks to the development of a biorefinery in the US today.

Not Just Production Technology: Comparative Prices, Feedstock, Co-Products, Policy and Jobs

The session opened up some very interesting discussion on the differences in pricing of feedstock and ethanol based on region (NY Harbor Index, Chicago Index, Arizona Index, California Index etc.), and issues related to different feedstocks.  For example, corn stover, which received a big push for biofuels research, has a very high ash content (10 – 12%) and when priced at $90 per ton, it can be very difficult to utilize for biofuels in a profitable manner.  On the production side, corn-based biorefineries can look at various coproducts such as corn oil, corn fiber fermentation, corn fiber anaerobic digestion, high protein byproducts, pill coatings, lignin markets, etc., as added benefits.

Overall, the panel discussion was very informative with regard to understanding biorefinery economy, feedstock handling and job markets required to have an established bioenergy economy.

Among the various bottlenecks, feedstock availability, technology readiness and policy regulation were pointed out as the major drivers. Among these, policy regulation was generally agreed upon as the most influencing driver in determining the success or failure of a biorefinery. It was indicated that federal and state laws differ in bioenergy production regulation and so, that may be worth exploring.

The session resulted in an interesting discussion of bioenergy economy and factors that effect a biorefinery beyond just production technology.

 

* Anahita Bharadwaj is a graduate research assistant (PhD) at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. She is working in Dr. Tom Richard’s research group at the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Her research is primarily focused on anaerobic digestion of lignocellulosic material. Specifically, she is working on designing processes to improve lignocellulose degradation and studying the microorganisms involved in these systems. Anahita is very interested in research, science communication and technologies related to bioenergy and environmental biotechnology, and hopes to pursue a career in these fields. She can be reached at axb1099@psu.edu.

 

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