Abengoa celebrates grand opening of cellulosic ethanol plant

By Erin Voegele | October 17, 2014

On Oct. 17, Abengoa celebrated the grand opening of its cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kansas. Construction on the 25 MMgy facility was completed in mid-August and ethanol production commenced in late September.  In addition to cellulosic ethanol, the facility also producers renewable energy. Residual biomass solids from the ethanol conversion process are used to generate 21 MW of electricity, enough to power the plant itself and provide excess renewable power to the local community.

The Hugoton plant is the first ever facility to deploy Abenoga’s proprietary enzymatic hydrolysis technology, which converts biomass into fermentable sugars that can be used to produce ethanol. In addition to planning a crucial role in proving the commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol production, Abengoa said the success of the project provides a platform for its future development of other bioproducts, such as bioplastics, biochemicals and drop-in jet fuel.

“The Hugoton plant opening is the result of 10 years of technical development, roughly 40,000 hours of pilot and demonstration plant operation, and the support of the DOE,” said Manuel Sánchez Ortega, CEO of Abengoa. “This is a proud and pivotal moment for Abengoa and for the larger advanced bioenergy industry – and further demonstrates our longstanding commitment to providing sustainable energy alternatives in the United States. This would have been simply impossible without the establishment of the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

The grand opening event was attended by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Hugoton Mayor Jack E. Rowden, and Ortega.

"Every gallon of cellulosic ethanol produced and used to fuel our vehicles reduces the impact of harmful greenhouse gas emissions by greater than 60 percent as compared to conventional gasoline," Moniz said. "The department is committed to supporting innovative technologies, from an early idea in the lab to a full, commercial-scale source of clean energy. As part of the administration’s all-of-the-above approach to homegrown American energy, the production of cellulosic ethanol creates economic opportunities for rural communities, helps diversify our energy portfolio, and moves us closer to a low-carbon energy future."                                                      

The DOE has provided financial support to the Hugoton project. Agengoa received a $132.4 million loan guarantee in 2011 from the DOE’s Loan Programs Office. Prior to the loan guarantee, the project benefited from a $97 million cost-shared grant investment from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

When operating at full capacity, the Hugoton facility will process 1,000 tons of biomass per day, most of which is harvested from a 50-mile radius of the facility. Of that biomass, more than 80 percent is expected to consist of irrigated corn stover, with the remainder comprised of wheat straw, milo stubble and switchgrass. Agengoa estimates its purchase of crop residues will generate $17 million per year of extra income for local farmers.

Abengoa also expects to expand it’s the scope of its process to take in additional feedstocks in the future. According to the company, it has been operating a demonstration-scale facility for more than a year that is capitalizing on its enzymatic hydrolysis technology and enzyme cocktail to extract cellulosic sugars from municipal solid waste, which would allow the expansion of renewable fuels production to urban areas.

Information released by Abengoa indicates the company plans to offer licenses and contracts to interested parties covering every aspect of the new industry, from process design to engineering, procurement and construction, supply of exclusive enzymes, as well as operations and marketing of the completed products from the facility.

The Renewable Fuels Association has spoken out to congratulate Abengoa on its achievement. “Abengoa Bioenergy should be proud of the hard work that took place behind the scenes to make today’s grand opening a reality,” said Robert White, vice president of industry relations for the RFA. “The opening of this facility goes to show that cellulosic ethanol is here to stay. This year we saw the grand opening of not one, not two, but three facilities that are now producing cellulosic ethanol with more to come. It is an exciting time for the industry and the energy here at the event is contagious. From where I’m standing, the future looks bright for next-generation biofuels.”

“This is indeed a great day, and it’s wonderful that Energy Secretary Moniz is on hand to congratulate Abengoa Bioenergy for seeing their cellulosic vision come to fruition,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the RFA. “Hopefully, Secretary Moniz will return to Washington with a deeper appreciation for the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Renewable Fuel Standard and convince the President not to rollback our nation’s commitment to biofuels. It would be the height of hypocrisy for the Administration to sing the praises of cellulosic ethanol today, only to pull the rug out from under this nascent technology tomorrow.”

The Biotechnology Industry Organization also congratulated Abengoa on its grand opening. “The advanced biofuel industry is starting up first-of-a-kind cellulosic biofuel plants, creating new jobs and proving the cost competitiveness of innovative new technology,” said Jim Breenwood, president and CEO of BIO. “The new cellulosic biorefinery opened by Abengoa Bioenergy today is the realization of nearly a decade of research and development and billions of dollars in investment and is the second commercial scale cellulosic biofuel plant in as many months. We congratulate Abengoa and its employees on this achievement.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard has been the driving force in encouraging innovative companies like Abengoa to invest this time and money to commercialize cellulosic biofuels,” Greenwood continued. “New advanced biofuel technologies are vital to the nation’s energy security. The United States must stay the course with the RFS, keeping this policy strong and operating consistently and predictably.”

Abengoa’s plant in Hugoton is the third cellulosic ethanol plant to come online in recent months. Quad County Corn Processors celebrated the grand opening of its 2 MMgy bolt-on cellulosic facility in early September. Poet DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC’s 25 MMgy Project Liberty also celebrated its grand opening in September.