Biomass Park holds groundbreaking

Facilities to provide additional fuel research, production

Hugh G. Willett  Knoxville News Sentinel

VONORE - The technology for turning large quantities of biomass such as corn cobs and switchgrass into fuel took a big step toward large-scale production with the groundbreaking Thursday on a "one of kind" Biomass Innovation Park.

The new park - on 21 acres next to the Genera/DuPont Danisco cellulosic ethanol demonstration-scale biorefinery in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park here - is a significant next step, said Dr. Kelly Tiller, CEO and president of Genera Energy.

"We need to improve how we handle, store and move large amounts of biomass," she said.

The facilities, which will include a $5 million Department of Energy-funded high tonnage bulk handling demonstration site, will provide harvesting, handling, storage, densification, pre-processing and transportation for multiple feed stocks including switchgrass, Tiller said. The site will initially process up to 50,000 tons of switchgrass.

Other financing for the project involves $4 million in state funds that remain from about $70 million the state contributed toward bioenergy initiatives. The first phase of the Biomass Innovation Park will be completed by year's end. An announcement about construction of a large-scale ethanol production facility is still at least a year away, Tiller said.

The park will include two storage silos, equipment shed, bale storage, offices, truck scales for feedstock receiving, pre-engineered biomass processing buildings and energy crop demonstration plots.

The new campus will be a "unique and valuable asset in answering many of the questions farmers, biorefineries and the entire bioenergy industry are asking about sufficient sustainable, scalable, cost-effective supply chains for energy crops," Tiller said.

In addition to technical challenges now being addressed at the demonstration facility, the cost-efficient large-scale production of ethanol from biomass depends on lowering the cost and reducing the complications associated with the supply chain, she said.

Genera has been working with local farmers to produce ethanol in small quantities from the approximately 6,000 acres of switchgrass now under cultivation in nine counties within 50 miles of the facility, Tiller said.

One of the biofuel project's goals will be to help those farmers efficiently grow and transport their switchgrass or other biomass material to production facilities.

Loudon County farmer Van Shaver said he volunteered to grow switchgrass for the refinery so that he could be a part of the energy self-sufficiency solution.

Shaver also is concerned about the environment.

"I've never heard of a switchgrass spill," he said, referring to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shaver said he invested about $72,000 in farm equipment and other supplies. Last year he received about $30,000 from the sale of switchgrass. He said he welcomes the opportunity to increase efficiency and lower his cost of production and transportation.

In addition to providing the Genera demonstration plant with large quantities of biomass, the new facilities also will be available for processing switchgrass to be used by other biofuel companies, Tiller said.

One example is Proton Power, a Lenoir City start-up that uses a proprietary process to turn biomass into fuel. The company is eager to explore the possibility of working with Genera to provide a supply of biomass, said Chief Operating Officer Dan Hensley.

Moving to large-scale production is important in creating new jobs in rural areas, according to Dallas Tonsager, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Rural Development, who was present at the groundbreaking.

Biofuel production could create as many as 800,000 new jobs in rural areas of North America by 2022, he said.

Private investment in biofuels has been hampered by concerns about the economy and the technology, Tonsager said, adding that "Investors fear the risk."

Demonstration plants and innovation parks help build investor confidence in alternative energy solutions, he said.

Other opportunities include a U.S. Navy goal to supply at least 50 percent of its fuel needs from biofuels, Tonsager said. Airlines also are interested in biofuels, he added.