By David DeWitteGreen ponds of algae could someday join golden waves of corn in Iowa's renewable energy industry if a project advanced for likely state funding through the Iowa Power Fund board this week is realized.
The Iowa Power Fund board agreed Wednesday to entered funding negotiations for the state's first algae-to-biodiesel project, offering the promise of a new feedstock for Iowa's renewable fuels industry.
A pilot plant proposed by Green Plains Renewable Energy would use three byproducts from the company's Shenandoah plant - waste water, waste carbon dioxide, and waste heat from dryers - as feedstock to grow algae. The algae would then be harvested and processed into biodiesel
The Iowa Power Fund board authorized final negotiations for $2,190,407 state grant for phase I of the two-phase project.
"The availability of new technologies and new feedstocks for renewable fuels is critical to our state and regional economies," said Scott Poor, corporate counsel and director of external communications for Green Plains Renewable Energy.
The project would initially involve the development of a 100-square-meter pilot plot for algae growth. If the project is developed at commercial scale, it would cover about 250 acres with algae impoundments covered by movable greenhouse-like structures to sequester carbon.
"We plan to use the same cash-rent model for the ground that has been used by the wind industry for placement of wind turbines," said Gregg Connell, executive vice president of the Shenandoah Chamber and Industry Association.
Green Plains' partner in the project, Cambridge, Mass.-based GreenFuel Technologies, worked with Arizona Public Service Co. to develop a algae-based bioreactor that produces ethanol biodiesel from power plant gases and ethanol in Arlington, Ariz.
GreenFuel has also led other projects including development of an algae farm at the Sunflower Integrated Bioenergy Center in Holcomb, Kans., using emissions from a coal-burning power plant.
"We asked them to participate in our project and they told us "no" about a dozen times, but we wouldn't quit," Connell said. "It's like getting Babe Ruth to join your baseball team."
Connell said Iowa's temperate climate has advantages for algae-based systems because it requires less energy to heat water to the temperature needed by growing algae than to cool it in hot southern climates. Carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas-fueled ethanol plants are more suitable for growing algae than carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning plants because the emissions contain fewer impurities, Connell added.
Harvested algae would be run through a centrifuge to remove water and then oils would be pressed from the algae, Connell said. The oils will be processed into biodiesel, and the remaining solids would be converted into animal feed that is a better source of protein for swine than the distillers dried grains produced by corn-based ethanol plants, Connell indicated.
The possibility of a future cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions could create an additional revenue stream for an algae-based biofuels process, Poor said. That's because growing algae consumes carbon dioxide, possibly generating carbon credits that could be sold to polluters that need them for regulatory compliance.
Poor said a "bolt-on" algae-to-ethanol process for existing renewable fuel plants could potentially become a huge economic benefit to the biofuels industry because it would offer an alternative to costly soy oil for production of biodiesel.
Green Plains' existing ethanol plant in Shenandoah opened in August 2007. It is operating at 109 percent of its nameplate production capacity of 50 million gallons per year. Green Plains plans to open its second ethanol plant in Superior in about two weeks.
The ethanol plant uses treated waste water from Shenandoah's municipal wastewater treatement plant because of local water supply constraints. The algae-to-biodiesel process would use water recaptured from the ethanol process, which requires about 400,000 gallons per day.
No timetable has been set for the Shenandoah project, Poor said, pending completion of the funding negotiations.
"We will move forward as quickly as possible," he explained.
The Iowa Power Fund board advanced five applications for funding to negotiations at Wednesday's meeting and tabled a sixth. The applications total about $25 million.
The biggest single application for $20 million was for POET's Project Liberty, a $200 million-plus plant proposed for Emmetsburg to produce ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks. That project was tabled for further review.
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