The dream of converting corn husks and other inedible crop waste into biofuel is about to be realized in a big way, now that the global corn ethanol company POET has just broken ground on its $250 million Project Liberty corn ethanol refinery in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The new facility is expected to churn out about 20 million gallons of ethanol a year while pumping up to $20 million into the local economy after construction is completed midway through 2013.
Once Project Liberty is up to speed, it will produce about 25 million gallons a year and employ about 40 workers full time.
And yes, Project Liberty has won millions in financial commitments from the U.S. Department of Energy.
However, while Republican legislators and presidential candidates have been tearing into DOE loan guarantees for solar energy and laughing their pants off at President Obama’s enthusiasm for algae biofuel, there is little chance that this particular alternative energy project will suffer the same fate.
Bipartisan support for corn ethanol (sort of)
POET is unlikely to become the subject of partisan political attacks partly because at least $80 million in DOE funding for Project Liberty originated in 2007, under the Bush Administration.
In addition, not too many politicians would go out on a limb to bash an important rural economic development project. The campaign of Newt Gingrich, for one, received $20,000 in donations from POET personnel and relatives last year through the company’s political action committee. The Federal Elections Commission has also ruled that farmers can contribute to the company’s PAC, too.
Two other front-running Republican candidates have found other ways to dance around the issue. Mitt Romney went on the record in support of corn ethanol subsidies last May, though by October he indicated that this was not his permanent position (surprise!).
Rick Santorum also put voters on notice that he was not a big supporter of ethanol subsidies, but managed to bury that message under the wheels of his pickup truck on a 99-county tour of Iowa that emphasized his position on social issues.
More federal funds for Project Liberty…or not
Last September DOE awarded a loan guarantee of $105 million for Project Liberty but even if the Republican candidates felt like making an issue out of the loan, it is now a moot point.
On January 23 POET announced that it will decline the new DOE funding, since it has found an alternative source of financing in the form of a joint venture with Royal DSM, the Dutch materials sciences giant.
Next generation corn ethanol production
Project Liberty is being built on the grounds of an existing POET corn ethanol refinery. It uses a breakthrough enzyme and fermentation process to extract syrup from inedible cellulosic biomass — cobs, husks, stalks and leaves, also called corn stover. In contrast, conventional corn ethanol refining requires a soft-tissue feedstock, namely corn kernels.
Once up and running, Project Liberty will be among the first commercial scale biorefineries in the U.S. to use a cellulosic feedstock.
POET and DSM also plan to replicate the new technology at more than two dozen other POET ethanol plants around the country. That would bring the joint venture’s total U.S. capacity to 1 billion gallons. In the context of total U.S. fuel consumption it’s not a particularly large figure, but it’s certainly nothing to laugh at given that POET is just one of any number of companies jumping into the U.S. biofuel market with the encouragement of the Obama Administration.
U.S. Navy get the last laugh on biofuel
If Republican politicians are is still looking for a biofuel project to laugh at, there is always algae, though they may want to take a good look at the U.S.S. Ford before they cut loose.
The U.S. Navy has been testing algae biofuel on several of its ships and aircraft, and it also has formed a test partnership with shipping giant Maersk as part of an interagency biofuel initiative formed last summer with the departments of Energy and Agriculture. Last week, the U.S.S. Ford became the first operational fleet ship in the U.S. Navy to take to the sea on an algae biofuel blend, burning through about 25,000 gallons on a run from Everett, Washington to San Diego with a performance “almost identical” to straight petroleum.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.