WisBusiness: Wisconsin primed for biofuel success, conference attendees say

By Jeff Decker

For WisBusiness.com

STEVENS POINT — As oil prices rise along with consumption, businesses are looking to a variety of biofuels to meet energy needs.

Over two days in Stevens Point at the Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny Conference, researchers and developers compared notes with politicians to find common ground to grow the fuels of tomorrow.

“Wisconsin has what we might call the perfect storm,” said Brad Pfaff, policy adviser to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse. “We have the technological base, we have the resource base and we have the manufacturing capability.”

Conference coordinator Tom Still asserted that ethanol will continue to be in the forefront and making it won’t burden food production.

“The ethanol of five years ago is different than it is today, and it’ll be different in five years,” says the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “The food versus fuel controversy is being overblown by those who ignore many other significant factors affecting food prices around the world.”

Those equations will tip noticeably once cellulosic ethanol is “cracked” within five years, he said.

The ethanol of today is behind noticeable economic and environmental change, said Josh Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance.

“There are 140 biofuel facilities in 22 states. In Wisconsin, we’re going to have 500 million gallons of ethanol per year, and nationally about 8 billion. We’re the seventh-leading producer nationally,” he says. “Nationally, we use about 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol. By using ethanol instead of gasoline, that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million tons and smog emissions were down 25 percent. Carbon dioxide emissions were down 29 percent.”

The first plant came online in Wisconsin in 2002. Corn continues to be a primary feedstock, but numerous crops and other plants can be convcrted to alcohol and ethanol. There is still disagreement and discussion about which feed stocks to place into which chemical processes, and how to best minimize pollution and maximize use of waste products and waste heat.

The paper industry is hopeful that this biofuels movement doesn’t lead to increased costs for resources and energy.

“We would hope that Wisconsin is not caught up in irrational exhuberance over bioenergy,” said Earl Gustafson, vice president for energy, forestry and human resources for the Wisconsin Paper Council. “We are concerned that people will start looking at wood in a very aggressive fashion.”

The council wants a specific definition of the “woody biomass” that will become a common feedstock. “We get nervous because the cleaner the chip is, the more is sounds like pulpwood to us, not tree tops,” Gustafson said.

The logs or chips aren’t appealing, but scraps left over after logging will be an profitable feedstock for facilities using the Fischer-Tropsch process, according to Eric Connor, senior vice president for business development at TermoChem Recover International.

Invented in the 1930s by Germans, the process can make any petroleum products from any carbon-based feedstock.

Coal and natural gas are currently the most common raw material, and TRI will use gas to feed two plants that could produce 40 million gallons of petroleum substitute in Park Falls and 5.5 million gallons in Wisconsin Rapids annually by 2012.

The energy content in Fischer-Tropsch fuels is higher than in ethanol. That 40 million gallons of gas-to-liquids fuel equals the BTUs of 70 million gallons of ethanol, according to Connor. “It will also replace all of the fossil fuels in their lime kiln,” he said.

NorthStar Economics helped produce the event at UW-Stevens Point, as did Rusk Prairie Consulting Group and the Lake States chapter of TAPPI.