Steaming Ahead with Cellulosic Ethanol

Great River Energy leads new biorefinery project in North Dakota
By Erin Voegele | January 20, 2011

A new industrial park under development by GRE near Jamestown, N.D., features a combined heat and power (CHP) plant designed specifically to supply process steam to adjacent industrial processors. The project, known as Spiritwood Station, was originally intended to host a 100 MMgy corn ethanol plant. Plans have since changed, and a new 20 MMgy cellulosic biorefinery is expected to be built in its place.

“Back in the 2007-‘08 timeframe, when we were just breaking ground on the [CHP] plant, the conventional ethanol plant was cancelled,” says GRE’s Manager of Business Development Sandra Broekema. “That left us with a big hole of 350,000 pounds-per-hour of steam that we were planning to produce for sale that we now need to find a home for.”

Broekema says there are several reasons why a cellulosic biorefinery is a well-suited addition to Spiritwood Station. In addition to the plant’s high-steam usage requirements, the facility will also produce purified lignin pellets as a coproduct. “Our CHP is a fluidized bed combustion system which has some inherent fuel flexibility,” he continues. “By cofiring 10 percent lignin with DryFine (a refined North Dakota lignite), we would be able to reduce our carbon footprint even further.”

As a result GRE has stepped into the lead development role of the cellulosic ethanol plant. “The primary motivation for GRE’s involvement is to secure additional steam partners for the industrial park in order to achieve our original design efficiencies and economies for our cooperative membership,” Broekema says. “Because we are taking a ‘cooperative approach’ involving as many of the key stakeholders as we can, we have laid out a somewhat conservative five-year development plan beginning in 2010 through 2014 startup, if all goes according to plan.”

According to Broekema, GRE is expected to maintain a small, minority interest in the product as both a buyer and seller of steam and fuel. “[We’re also] trying to involve as many of the key stakeholders in this area as we can, because we recognize that this first commercial-scale plant is going to need all the support it can get,” she says. “I envision that there will be many owners. I’m not sure there is going to be a single majority owner. It may be that a cooperative is formed with many individual key stakeholders and that will be the majority owner of the plant. However, I definitely see it as broad ownership—primarily local and regional entities and feedstock producers.”

The current plan is to license the facility’s process technology from Denmark-based Inbicon A/S. “Inbicon has developed the core technology that this plant is based on,” Broekema says, noting that the company is a member of the development team working to pull the project together. It is also possible that Inbicon may choose to hold a minority interest in the plant.

While wheat straw was originally intended to be the primary feedstock for the plant, it is possible that corn stover will also have to be utilized. A feedstock supply and product market study was recently completed. While GRE was generally pleased with the outcome of the study, there was one snag. It may not be possible to harvest more than 25 to 50 percent of the wheat straw grown on highly erodible land. As a result, it may be necessary to consider adding corn stover to the feedstock mix while pushing the feedstock procurement radius out to nearly 150 miles. 

—Erin Voegele