Plant to convert sugar cane and sweet sorghum to 20-25 million gallons per year of Isobutanol
From Colorado, Gevo (GEVO) announced that Highlands EnviroFuels has signed a letter of intent to become a Gevo licensee to produce renewable isobutanol.
Highlands will build a commercial-scale “Brazilian-style” syrup mill in Highlands County, Florida, which would have a production capacity of approximately 200,000 metric tons of fermentable sugar per year. The facility will process locally grown sugar cane and sweet sorghum to a high quality syrup as a clean sugar stream for fermentation and recovery of isobutanol. The isobutanol plant would be bolted on to the back-end of the syrup mill and have a nameplate capacity of approximately 20-25 million gallons per year.
The US cane background
You might ask yourself, since the US has some extensive cane-growing areas in Hawaii, Florida, and Louisiana and since sugarcane ethanol has been so successful in Brazil, what gives with US sugarcane ethanol? The answer lies in protected pricing sugar has been historically protected in the US, and the price thereby has been substantially higher than, say, Brazil or Mexico, but strict quotas on imports have ensured a market but one that generally is only affordable for food sugars, not fuels.
A number of ventures over the years have come close to announcing a project based around sugarcane bagasse, energy cane, or other like assets in Florida. Coskata had an announced project that never quite got over the line. BP Biofuels had its first commercial project targeted for the Okeechobee region in south-central Florida, though focused on energy crops.
The Highlands background
Highlands has been in development for quite some time. Back in 2010, we reported that Highlands EnviroFuels said that it proceeding with plans to construct a 30 Mgy ethanol plant in Highlands County using sweet sorghum and sugar cane as a feedstock. The project will also produce 25 MW of green power, and the company said that it has signed LOIs with growers representing 48,000 acres of production to provide feedstock for the plant.
By fall 2011, we reported that Highlands EnviroFuels received its PSD Air Construction Permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, authorizing the construction of a 36 million gallon per year Advanced Biofuel ethanol production plant in Highlands County, Florida. By then, the project had also expanded its power gen, moving to 30 megawatts of renewable power from residual cane and sorghum stalk fiber and leaves, known as “bagasse”. At the time, groundbreaking was targeted for Q2 2012.
There’s a lot of economic opportunity in the project. A study in 2011 concluded that plant would provide $51 million of GDP for the Highlands County economy and nearly $44 million in household income annually. In addition, the economic activity generated by the plant will support up to 60 full-time, high paying permanent jobs, and nearly 700 indirect and induced jobs in all sectors of the county. The study also estimated that the one-time construction impact will account for $47 million of GDP for Highlands County, generate more than $39 million in household income. Overall, the project received $7 million in support from the Florida Farm to Fuel fund as well as a $305,000 grant from the Florida Energy and Climate Commission.
The switch to isobutanol
Why make a $2 fuel when you can make a $4 fuel or chemical? That’s the question that, presumably, Highlands answered for itself in opting for Gevo’s isobutanol model although we may well find that the proposed Highlands plant may utilize the Gevo side-by-side production approach to give itself the flexibility to produce both ethanol and isobutanol.
Reaction from the principals
“We believe the probability of success increases significantly by transitioning the project from ethanol to isobutanol,” Brad Krohn, President of Highlands, told The Digest. “given the tremendous market optionality for isobutanol (marine fuel, paraxylene for bio-PET, renewable jet fuel production, or chemicals). Not to mention isobutanol for gasoline blending does not suffer from the current blend wall as does ethanol. Nothing is yet binding with Gevo, but we are excited to be moving in this direction. We are eager to finalize the details of a binding agreement so that we can start constructing the facility.”
Pat Gruber, Gevo’s Chief Executive Officer, said, “We are very pleased to be working with Highlands and having them join Gevo as a licensee. This new partnership shows the flexibility of Gevo’s GIFT technology to convert a wide range of sugar sources into isobutanol. It also continues to validate the interest in licensing our intellectual property portfolio as we look to transition our business to focus more on a licensing model.”
The Bottom Line
LOIs are not hard contracts and we’ll see how far this goes, it’s been a tough row to hoe for Highlands EnviroFuels in translating project ambitions into steel in the ground and Florida repealing its own in-state E10 RFS last year didn’t help much.
Nevertheless, as the principals indicate, isobutanol gives the project some upside on the revenue side, and it’s been tempting and popular country for a number of project developers over the years. The combination of sweet sorghum and isobutanol might be just the sweeteners the project needs.