Fueling Florida's Future

07/01/2007 02:00:00 AM

As fuel prices swell and such environmental issues as global warming and ozone pollution move to the forefront, Florida is preparing to play a major role in the effort to cut the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, set up the Florida Farm to Fuel Initiative last year in an attempt to break the nation’s oil addiction. According to a 2006 statute, the initiative aims to “enhance the market for and promote the production and distribution of renewable energy from Florida-grown crops, agricultural wastes and residues, and other biomass.”

The program looks not only to turn crop waste into usable energy, but it also could provide growers with the opportunity to grow crops to be used solely for fuel.

For now, Florida Farm to Fuel still is trying to gain support. Last year, the department held a “Farm to Fuel Summit” Aug. 30 through Sept. 1 in Orlando that was attended by nearly 400 people. The 2007 summit is scheduled for July 18-20 in St. Petersburg. Gov. Charlie Crist is scheduled as the keynote speaker of the event, where participants will attend sessions about the various types of biofuels, how to market ethanol and other energy-saving avenues for Florida producers.

“Before growers are convinced to put the crops in the ground, we need to have the processing facilities,” says Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the department. “The big push now is to get some of the major companies investing in biofuel processing facilities.”

When this article went to print, there were no ethanol production facilities in the state.

Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson has said that Florida’s large amount of farm acreage and its mild climate make it a perfect place to grow crops for fuel year round.

In February, the state took a huge step toward facility production when it awarded eight organizations $15 million in grants to fund renewable energy technologies. At least $5 million was allotted to bioenergy projects, with the remaining money supporting the production and use of other renewable energy resources, such as hydrogen, solar energy, wind energy and hydroelectric power.

“The grant program creates a receptive, inspiring environment for research,” said Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp in a Florida Department of Environmental Protection news release. “Investments in cutting-edge ventures ensure a stronger economy and a cleaner environment for the next generation of Floridians.”

Citrus Energy LLC, Boca Raton, is one of the eight organizations awarded a grant. The company plans to use the $2.5 million to build an ethanol bio-refinery that uses citrus waste to produce 4 million gallons of clean, affordable, locally produced ethanol per year. The facility should be up and running within a year, says Thomas Stender, vice president of business development

According to the company, Florida produces 5 million tons of citrus waste a year. Historically, this waste has been dried into citrus pulp pellets and fed to cattle. This act requires a large capital investment by the processor with a negative return on investment, according to the company. Citrus Energy also says that Florida does not have a suitable climate for corn production, thus requiring an alternative source from which to produce ethanol.

Instead, Citrus Energy plans to convert citrus waste from some of the state’s growers into cellulosic ethanol, which differs from the conventional form of ethanol most often derived from corn. Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plant stems and stalks, as well as from wood chips, switchgrass and even corn stover. Conventional ethanol can be produced only from the plant’s sugar and starches. The two types of ethanol yield the same amount of energy per gallon—about two-thirds that of gasoline, and perform the same in automobiles. However, Citrus Energy says that citrus waste can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol at significantly lower production costs than conventional ethanol produced from corn. And with Florida’s large supply of citrus waste, cellulosic ethanol production seems to be the state’s best option.

The ratio of the amount of energy it takes to produce cellulosic ethanol to how much energy the fuel produces is much more economically beneficial compared with conventional ethanol, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And because the usage of corn crops for fuel can compete with the food supply, utilizing waste to make the same fuel is a great alternative, Stender says.

In the Midwest, there’s also the argument that increased corn acreage to accommodate the ethanol market could potentially be harming the environment rather than helping it. In a June 10 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, scientists claim that the spike in corn production is requiring more fertilizer.

“Unlike soybeans, alfalfa and certain other crops, corn requires heavy applications of fertilizer because it is unable to take nitrogen from the atmosphere,” the article says. The increased use of fertilizer results in more nitrates entering the groundwater. Excessive amounts of nitrates then lead to the growth of phytoplankton and algae bloom, which depletes water of oxygen and kills aquatic vegetation and life. With this potential controversy over the use of corn for ethanol, Florida’s use of citrus waste looks promising.

But whether Farm to Fuel will focus on cellulosic ethanol, conventional ethanol or other types of biofuel is something that will be determined by the market, McElroy says, adding that Bronson has called cellulosic ethanol the wave of the future. If companies that serve as potential investors don’t agree with Bronson, the effort will be stopped dead in its tracks, McElroy says.

Because cellulosic ethanol is still in its infancy and no commercial cellulosic ethanol facilities exist in the country, its unchartered waters have caused some companies to choose the conventional ethanol route.

Fort Lauderdale-based Losonoco Inc., which originally was founded as a cellulosic ethanol company, also was awarded a $2.5 million grant, which will be used to produce conventional ethanol. The company plans to refurbish an old ethanol facility in Polk County. Don Markley, chief operating officer, says he hopes the plant will be producing corn-based ethanol by May or June of next year.

“Cellulosic ethanol needs to be proven to be economically viable,” Markley says.

Editor Elizabeth Ashby contributed to this report

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