Cellulosic ethanol technologies that are well developed and rival the cost of fossil fuels will thrive in the U.S., with or without long-term subsidies, ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler said.
“There are two types of players in the [ethanol] industry,” said Imbler, whose Colorado-based firm makes fuel and chemicals out of insect stomach bugs — those who “need” subsidies to be profitable and those who can compete without them.
“Look, we need to do this on our own,” Imbler said in a telephone interview with SolveClimate News. “If the government helps us get going — or there are subsidies out there — we’ll take them. But you’re not going to base your whole business model on the benevolence of government.”
ZeaChem broke ground on its first demonstration facility in Boardman, Ore. in June. The biorefinery will eventually produce 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year and will go online in 2011.
The company says it can compete with $50-a-barrel crude oil.
“At ZeaChem … our goal is to compete against fossil fuels head on. And if we can produce and make things cheaper with equivalent performance, we’ll win every day,” said Imbler, who calls himself “an old oil guy” and was a former president of the Koch Petroleum Group, a leading fuels producer.
ZeaChem does not produce ethanol directly. Rather, it converts sugar into a chemical building block called acetic acid by feeding it to microbes found in termite guts. The acid, a solvent used in making paint, reacts with hydrogen to break down hybrid poplar trees and similar cellulosic materials into fuels and feedstock for plastic and other chemicals.
“It’s a very, very unique approach,” said Imbler.
The standard method for making ethanol is to ferment sugars with yeast. The approach creates one molecule of heat-trapping carbon dioxide for every molecule of ethanol, while ZeaChem’s process produces none.
“When converting the sugars to acetic acid, we do not produce CO2,” Imbler said. “We have an efficiency advantage over any product out there because we don’t lose the carbons to carbon dioxide.”
As a result, ZeaChem claims to deliver a 94 to 98 percent greenhouse gas savings compared to corn. The company also says its ethanol yields will be five times higher than an acre of corn, and considerably more than other cellulosic technologies.
Because it uses a known organism from nature, the company carries “much less technology risk” than competitors that are developing new bacteria and yeasts, said Imbler.
ZeaChem has raised around $40 million in largely venture capital cash from Globespan Capital Partners, PrairieGold Venture Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Firelake Capital, as well as oil refiner Valero Energy, the country’s top corn ethanol producer.
The demo plant is being partially funded by a $25 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Long-Term Clarity Missing
The Obama administration sparked ire from industry groups last month when it slashed the annual target for cellulosic biofuels without a pledge to help finance new refineries.
In its proposed 2011 Renewable Fuel Standards, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it expects 5 to 17.1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuels in 2011, a tiny fraction of the 250 million gallons mandated under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007.
The energy act directs the U.S. to boost the use of biofuels from 12 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons by 2022. A massive 16 billion gallons of that is earmarked to come from switchgrass, corncobs, sugarcane bagasse and other inedible cellulosic plant parts.
Yet, there are still no commercial-scale cellulosic plants up and running. Overall, 200 ethanol plants are operating nationwide — almost all of them making fuel from corn.
Some industry observers said the EPA’s move would send a chilling signal to the financial markets. The reason is that ethanol production is a capital-intensive industry. Plants can cost $100 million to construct and take several years to build.
Imbler said the EPA’s move “in itself, is not necessarily bad for the industry” because the goals were not going to be met.
But he is sympathetic. “The lack of long-term clarity from the government is very, very difficult.” Having an incentive for a few years and making obscure pledges to extend it “doesn’t work very well with the finance community.”
But if ethanol players continuously “need” incentives to be money-making, that’s a problem, Imbler said.
“I question how that long term can be good for the country … At some point bio-based fuels and chemicals needs to stand on their own two feet … You don’t want to see subsidies going on in the indefinite future. That’s probably not a good use of resources.”
A study released last month by the independent Congressional Budget Office on biofuel tax credits found that the cost to taxpayers to use corn ethanol to reduce gas consumption by one gallon is $1.78; for cellulosic ethanol, it’s three dollars.
Critics slammed the research, saying it ignored the benefits of biofuels and the cost to taxpayers of the current petroleum industry.
‘A Village of Different Technologies’ Is Needed
In July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced his scaled-down oil-spill liability bill that included $400 million for electric car deployment and nothing for biofuels.
The bill, now put off until September, set off accusations from some observers that the government suddenly is favoring battery-powered cars over ethanol.
Imbler cautioned Washington against getting into the business of picking winners.
“It takes a village of different technologies to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, and all of them play a part,” he said. “We really need to have some solid, philosophical policy rather than so many tactical policies.”
Of course, Imbler is partial to cellulosic ethanol.
Electric cars are hardly pollution free, he said, given that coal powers half the country. “If you think about an electric car going down the street … there’s a smokestack on it somewhere.” And the problem with corn ethanol, he said, lies in the notoriously high amounts of energy needed to make it.
A gallon of ethanol delivers around two-thirds the energy content of a gallon of gas.
From an energy and climate change perspective, cellulosic ethanol “makes a lot of sense,” Imbler said.