Groundbreaking Impact

Ineos Bio has begun construction on a commercial-scale biorefinery. What does it mean for the industry?
| March 17, 2011

To pin the significance of Ineos Bio JV’s groundbreaking day to a single individual, group or community may be nearly impossible. To start, there’s James Gaddy who, in 1989, discovered a biochemical process and a special strain of bacteria that possessed the improbable ability to produce ethanol. Gaddy’s find is arguably one of the major reasons that 200 attendees converged at the future site of the Indian River BioEnergy Center, where the only discernible scenery was the expansive tract of leveled ground where the plant will someday stand, with vultures circling over a massive landfill off in the distance. In 1994, Gaddy and a team of researchers put the microorganism to the test at a pilot facility in Fayetteville, Ark., and the results from that work are the main driver behind the Ineos process today, which combines syngas technology with the super bug. But Gaddy, who said there were times he thought the day would never come, also said “a lot of good people helped along the way,” signaling that one man’s work wasn’t enough to transform a special microorganism into a commercial facility near the coast of Florida.

And Gaddy was right. Sitting alongside him in the front row of the reserved seats at the event were several members of the Ineos team who, as they said, spent a lot of “blood, sweat and tears” to make the project happen. There was David King, the joint venture director between Ineos and partner New Planet Energy, who admitted to the crowd that his work in developing plans to design and build the plant that will someday produce 8 MMgy of next-gen ethanol from MSW and nearly 6 megawatts of renewable energy had become more of a passion than a job. There was also Peter O’Bryan, Indian River county commissioner, who, according to King, was present at nearly every Ineos event or meeting in Florida. “I think it’s fitting that we are here on such a brilliant day to groundbreak the beginning of a bright future for bioenergy,” O’Bryan said during his short speech. Pointing to his dedication to the project, O’Bryan noted that for every Ineos-based vote held in the county, the tally was always an overwhelming “yes” in favor.

Along with O’Bryan, it’s possible the day was also about Richard Machek from the USDA Rural Development in Florida. Mechak, who explained to the crowd that the USDA has invested almost $1 billion in Florida in the past year for roads, schools, fire departments and energy, opened his remarks to those in attendance by saying, “Welcome to the future,” adding that he was excited to be a part of the project’s development. “This is going to plant a seed today,” he said. “By standards, it is not the largest plant that there is going to be, but it is probably the first plant that is going to be completed. Everybody in the world will be watching what happens here in Vero Beach.”

Like O’Bryan and Machek, or Jay Levenstein from the Florida Department of Agriculture, several others there under the shade of the white tent had major stakes  in the project. There were members from local hotel chains, excited at the new business opportunities. The demolition company that helped to clear the former citrus processing plant to the bare ground showed undeniable support of and pride in the project, abruptly handing out celebratory plaques to each member of the Ineos team.

The Outsiders

Even with so many insiders from the project in attendance at the ceremony, it’s possible that the groundbreaking day was actually more about those on the outside, or those who were not in attendance. Tex Carter from New Planet Energy highlighted that possibility in his speech. “The emphasis here is that we are trying to build a new vista for the people buying motor fuel and buying electricity by taking the stuff that no one wants and converting it. If you are a taxpayer, you are invested in this project,” he said. 

Paul Bryan, the U.S. DOE’s Biomass Program director who formerly worked with Chevron in the company’s biofuels business unit, opened his own remarks by reading a statement from the DOE’s Secretary Steven Chu. In a letter to Ineos, Chu wrote, “This waste-to-bioenergy project will create new jobs, reduce carbon pollution, provide advanced biofuels and renewable power to local residents, and spur the creation of America’s biomass industry.” Bryan also highlighted that sentiment, helping to elaborate on the idea that a facility like Ineos’ isn’t just about those who made it happen. The project, he said, is providing a number of jobs, “and one of the greatest things about the bioeconomy is that these jobs can’t be outsourced,” he said. “You can’t harvest American feedstock and convert it somewhere else in the world.”

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., also conveyed his excitement about the project in a statement he sent. “It is my hope that this new facility will aid in the efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and encourage the creation of an American biorefining industry by taking what otherwise would be landfill waste and, instead, using it to generate new energy,” he wrote.

Joe Mueller, program director of rural business services for Florida’s USDA, also pointed out the significance of this project to the state. “Every project that we get in Florida is going to spur interest in renewable energy and biorefining,” adding that “it will lend credibility to the industry” and the farmers because, he explained, “they will be more willing to start growing feedstocks.”

The Implications

If Carter is right, and we are all “invested” in the facility, then the potential celebrated on this day could have a massive effect on an emerging industry, including for those who develop new facilities and utilize the renewable energy and power from that work. After the event moved from the tent to the bare soil where the facility will someday stand, an array of Ineos members and others including Paul Bryan, stood for photos holding gold shovels. Following his brief time spent posing for photos, Bryan spoke with Biorefining Magazine on the effect of Ineos on the local community, and the biorefining industry’s future.

“We had a number of these biorefinery projects going before the Recovery Act,” Bryan said. “And then the Recovery Act really enabled us to accelerate that. And this is one of those investments that is really paying off. It’s paying off in economic terms here locally, but it’s also paying off in terms of demonstrating technology that’s portable to lots of other places.” Bryan, who earlier pointed out the importance of having several elements involved in a project to make it a success, also said that this project “checked all the boxes.” The federal government provided the project with research support early on, Bryan said, “and then you had the USDA and the DOE providing real serious money for construction of a plant in the nearer term, but you also had the state, the county and the local people.” As for future projects, Bryan also said, “I don’t think any of these projects are any stronger then the weakest links. I think that is why it (Ineos) is one of the first out of the box.”

As for future projects, Bryan said that the Southeast and the Midwest are some natural places early on to kick these off, but projects like Ineos’ will still be difficult to pull off. “But, I believe we will have a number of plants breaking ground by the end of the year, and maybe even some producing on a similar time scale to this one.”

There is no doubt there was a biorefining-based buzz lingering in the warm Florida air, and although passersby most likely had no idea what the same site two years from now will look like, Peter Williams, CEO of Ineos Bio, touched on one of the major implications of the day. “The biofuels industry is at a crossroads,” Williams said. “This facility will help to change that view.” A lot of people have been talking about things happening, he said, “but this is happening.”

Combining Williams’ sentiment with a statement from Machek may, in the end, speak the loudest and clarify why a superbug developed years ago by Gaddy, the passion of King, or excitement by Paul Bryan surrounding a semi-intimate ceremony on a sunny day in February in a place that most “investors,” as Carter called the attendees, will never go, really matters. The goal now, Machek said, is “to get financial partners that we can work with, and guarantee loans with. That, he said, “is a thing of the future, and it  is where we want to be.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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