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Despite market volatility, Sharon's ethanol plant builds for the future

--- Project could use other biomass sources as technology changes

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Dec. 21, 2007, 10:28 a.m.)

While Wisconsin surges forward with new ideas about renewable fuel sources, Global Renewable's plans to build a corn-supported ethanol plant in Sharon forge ahead.

The company has 80 and 90 percent of the $237 million needed for the facility, which could produce 108 million to 120 million gallons of ethanol annually from 38 million bushels of corn, said Jeff Knight, director of Global Renewable.

Until the remaining equity is raised, the company cannot predict a start date for construction.

"We'd like to break ground (soon)," Knight said. "If it's by April, May or June, we'd be happy."

The plant will need about 18 months for construction.

Despite the rising price of corn, which has caused some ethanol producers to shut down, reduce production or delay construction plans, Knight still sees a future in corn-made ethanol.

The infrastructure to transport and store ethanol on the East and West Coasts is improving and Knight expects the demand for the renewable fuel to increase.

The infrastructure shortcoming has created a "glut of ethanol in the Midwest" and lower prices. Once improvements are made, prices should go back up and ethanol producers should revive, Knight said.

"You've got a short-term blip that was created by some market difficulties the last five months," Knight said.

Some energy experts see a need to seek out alternative biomass sources to create renewable energy, another scare to ethanol investors.

Corn ethanol has a low net yield of energy because of the amount of energy put into producing it, including fertilizers, tractor fuel and fossil fuels burned at production facilities, according to some studies. Others say its production has a net loss of energy. 

Wisconsin has 15 million tons of excess biomass--switchgrass, wood, crop residues and manure--that could produce 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol per year and displace half of the 2.6 billion gallons of gasoline Wisconsin consumed last year, according to an April study by Better Environmental Solutions for the Governors' Ethanol Coalition.

While the study agrees that there is still energy gained from producing corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol produced from other sources may be more efficient and create less greenhouse gasses.

The energy bill passed Friday by the U.S. Senate calls for the nation to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2022, with 21 billion from sources other than corn kernels.

The bill calls for about 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol. About 7 billion gallons are produced now, said Judy Ziewacz, director of the Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence.

Ziewacz said the corn ethanol plants of today would likely be able to convert to make cellulosic ethanol in the future.

The reason they aren't now is because it is not cost-effective. The cost to produce the enzymes to break down the sugars in grasses or wood is significantly more than the cost needed to produce the same amount of corn ethanol, Knight said. Consumers wouldn't see a savings at the pump.

"If you want to eventually start using cellulose, you have to develop a mature industry that can spend time on the research to drive that enzyme price down," he said. "You need to have a market that's mature and continue to do research to continue going in that direction of ethanol production."

The Sharon ethanol plant will be able to convert to use another fuel source when the time arrives, Knight said.

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