POET: Emmetsburg is making history

EMMETSBURG – On Monday, Emmetsburg welcomed the world to the future of energy.

That statement might sound like over-reach, but not to man who uttered them, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during Wednesday’s grand opening ceremony at Project Liberty, POET-DSM’s cellulosic ethanol plant.

“If anyone asks me if advanced biofuels have a future,” Vilsack said, “I’ll tell them, ‘Go to Emmetsburg and see for yourself.'”

Vilsack was the first of eight speakers including state and federal officials and by POET and Royal DSM leader.

His assertion that second-generation biofuels is the wave of the country’s energy future was echoed by Dr. Micheal Knotke, deputy undersecretary of science and energy for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Project Liberty is designed to use corn stover – mostly cobs and leaves and some corn stalks – to manufacture ethanol. The plant is expected to distill 20 million gallons annually at start-up and eventually grow that to 25 million gallons.

It’s co-product, biogas, will be used to provide energy for POET’s corn-based ethanol plant across the road.

Outlining how conflicts in oil exporting countries create energy instability in the U.S., he called the development of cellulosic ethanol “a big deal.

“The U.S. has invested in this for 30 years and this plant will punch above its weight for years to come.”

He predicted that biofuels will break the oil-dependency cycle and the paradigm of energy from oil, if a stable investment environment can be created.

“We’ll need 1,000 (biotech fuel plants) by 2040,” Knotke said. “Cars, trucks and planes are30 percent of (U.S.) carbon load.

“Climate change is here, it’s real and caused by humans. Biotech will help address this issue.”

Beyond energy security, Feike Sijbesma, chief executive officer and chairman of Netherlands-based Royal DSM, said the environment cannot be forgotten.

Retelling the history of the world’s energy dependence on fossil fuels, he said, “The world is not there for us to exploit it. Fossil fuels are finite.”

He said the existence of Project Liberty starts the commercial transition of waste materials into new uses.

“We are witnessing the start of the shift from the fossil fuel ag to the biotech fuels age,” Sijbesma said. “We don’t need to wait for the day fossil fuels run out.”

POET and Royal DSM were both working on the technology for creating advanced biofuels on a commercial scale for seven years.

POET had the plant facilities. The two joined forces.

At a press conference later, Sijbesma confirmed that both companies have discussed the possibilities of building other plants, but also the likelihood that since Project Liberty is making ethanol, they will license the technology to other investors.

“Now every acre of ag land,” Sijbesma said, “can be used for food, feed and fuel; and farmers can make money from something they used to leave in the field.”

Other speakers’ messages include:

– Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said the Environmental Protection Agency’s threat to set aside the Renewable Fuels Standard is at an untimely moment.

“Now is not the time to go backward,” Branstad said. “Restore the RFS and move forward. We’re in a race for developing biofuels and we’re not the only country competing.”

Brazil, China and India were named as others developing biofuel economies.

– Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowa leads the nation in corn production and now leads in biofuels with 60,000 jobs affected by the industry from 42 corn-based ethanol plants, 12 biodiesel plants and two cellulosic plants.

DuPont Pioneer is nearing completion of a cellulosic plant in Nevada.

– Rob van Leen, chief innovative officer for Royal DSM, said his company has the right enzyme mix for making the ethanol and the advanced bacteria for creating biogas, the co-product from cellulosic ethanol processing.

He said the company’s “yeast team” has a second-generation of yeast to be introduced into the plant soon and a third-generation of yeast that will be implemented early in 2015.

“We have the most cost-effective enzyme mix in the world,” van Leen said.

– Jeff Broin, POET’s founder and executive chairman, said people kept saying that cellulosic ethanol could not be profitable on a commercial scale.

“It was a fantasy then,” Broin said, “but today it’s real.”

He asked farmers in the audience of 500 to stand to be applauded.

“We can’t do what we do, without you,” Broin said.

He said a plant like Project Liberty is scratching the surface of what can be developed.

He said cellulosic ethanol is the foundation of a complete overhaul of the nation’s energy policy, moving away from dependence on limited fossil fuel sources.

“The solution is the combination of sun, soil and seeds,” Broin said.

Other biomass technology is working on manufacturing biofuels from other cellulosic sources such as crop residues, wood residues and grasses

Almost any plant-based material can be an ethanol feedstock.

All plants contain sugars, and these sugars can be fermented to make ethanol in a process called biochemical conversion.