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Hugoton’s biorefinery to host grand opening PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 09 October 2014 09:12

More than 1,000 construction workers toiled to complete the cellulosic ethanol plant near Hugoton, and its owners, Abengoa Energy, expect it to join a fermented-fuel revolution. The plant’s grand opening is set for Oct. 17. Courtesy photo

 

By ROBERT PIERCE

• Leader & Times

 

An ethanol plant capable of producing 25 million gallons per year will have its grand opening next week in Hugoton.

On the flat plains of Kansas, a stack of gleaming steel towers and pipes stretches 16 stories into the sky.

More than 1,000 construction workers have toiled to complete the cellulosic ethanol plant near the Stevens County community, and its owners, Abengoa Energy, expect it to join a fermented-fuel revolution.

Once the $600-million biorefinery, which officially opens Oct. 17, is fully operational, it will provide more than 60 full-time jobs and will have an annual payroll in excess of $5 million.

More importantly, said Roy Roberson, a spokesman for McKinley Communications, the company publicizing the plant’s opening, the environmentally pure, sustainable and affordable fuel it produces will replace gasoline, but without the environmental and human health risks that burning petroleum products causes.

Some top ranking national political leaders will on hand, one in particular the company can’t announce for security reasons, and Roberson said hopefully, Gov. Sam Brownback will be there.

“He is proving to be difficult to pin down on personal appearances these days,” Roberson said in an e-mail to the Leader & Times.

Unlike most ethanol factories, in which yeast feeds on sugars in foodstuff such as maize (corn) kernels, the Hugoton facility will make use of what has been, until now, agricultural waste – cellulose.

Thousands of tonnes of corn stover, the leaves, talks and husks left over after maize harvest, are already waiting, stacked in square bales at the 1.6-square kilometer site.

The Hugoton plant is one of three U.S. facilities that should start commercial production of cellulosic ethanol in the coming months, the others both being in Iowa.

Brewing cellulosic ethanol, however, is not easy. Producers must dismember large, indigestible molecules such as cellulose and hemicellulose to yield fermentable sugars.

The process requires the biomass to be ground up and pretreated with acids. A cocktail of enzymes must then be applied to chop up the tough biological polymers inside – all before the yeast is added to the resulting sugars.

This is what makes the scale of Abengoa’s processing facility much larger and more expensive than any corn-ethanol plant.

The fuel does not come without drawbacks, though. Demand for petrol has actually fallen, and there is growing interest in alternatives such as battery-powered cars.

Cellulosic ethanol may now be arriving, but some say its timing is terrible.

“We don’t have room for any more ethanol, said Wallace Tyler, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

Some say corn ethanol is now slightly cheaper than petrol, but cellulosic ethanol is more expensive than both.

Tyner said a cellulosic ethanol plant’s capital costs are roughly twice those of a corn-ethanol plant, and enzymes raise operational costs further.

Some likewise say cellulosic will be heavily dependent on the Renewable Fuel Standards to clear its path to the pumps, yet its delayed arrival has prompted the EPA to reduce the amount of cellulosic ethanol that refiners are required to blend into their petrol.

The RFS plan for this year originally called for 6.6 billion liters of cellulosic ethanol, but in November 2013, the EPA proposed that the mandate should be reduced to 64 million liters, a mere trickle in comparison.

This has left groups working on renewable fuel, who say that producers will easily make more than 64 million liters once they get going, with a not so good feeling.

“We think the EPA underestimated the capacity of the industry,” said Christopher Standlee, executive vice president of global affairs for Abengoa.

Standlee still believes that biology can still compete by tackling ever-cheaper feedstocks. His company is betting that a new generation of enzymes can turn municipal waste into ethanol, and last July, Abengoa opened a demonstration plant near Salamanca, Spain, to do just that.

The company hopes this technology will eventually allow it to expand its U.S. operations beyond the Corn Belt.

Standlee said that, as long as the cellulosic industry is given time to mature, just as corn ethanol was, it can get back on the trajectory set out by the RFS.

“If the EPA sticks with the program,” he said.

The grand opening of the Hugoton plant will start at 11 a.m. Oct. 17 with a ceremony, followed by a ribbon cutting at 12:45 p.m. A VIP luncheon and plant tours will take place immediately following the ribbon cutting.

The plant site is located at 1043 Road P west of Hugoton.

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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association and the Associated Press.

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