Innovative energy technologies until now have been long on the promise and short on delivery, but if three small startups in Vero Beach and Fellsmere gain traction, they may not only help in our country’s search for clean energy but provide a promising step forward in our county’s effort to create jobs -- green jobs.
Out in the western part of the county, two companies are seeking to create renewable biofuels for trucking and aviation using algae. And another is exploring purchasing the old Ocean Spray Cranberries’ grapefruit processing plant off Oslo Road and producing ethanol from vegetation waste in what could be Florida’s first commercial bioethanol refinery.
The latter project, a joint venture between New Planet Energy and INEOS BioEnergy, at this point has the most backing after receiving a $50 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, which the company expects to match to buy the land and build a new facility most likely where the now empty Ocean Spray plant sits.
The $50 million grant to INEOS New Planet BioEnergy (INPB) was one of 19 handed out by the federal government late last year to cutting-edge clean energy companies – and the only one awarded to a company in the state of Florida.
The test plant in Vero Beach could be under construction by the third quarter of this year and, when operational, would produce 8 million gallons of ethanol a year and employ about 50 people. If the plant is successful, a scaled up facility could produce as much as 32 million gallons annually and employ 150 workers.
While County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan is excited by the prospects for the future that INPB represents, he is realistic that all these companies are just starting out to see if what they have produced in the lab on a small scale can be produced on a commercially viable scale.
“The biggest problem is nobody has any of these under a full operation status, most of them have small pilot projects,” O’Bryan said. “Nobody has one ramped up to (commercial) scale.”
But green technology now strikes many, including the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, as a more promising area to pursue to create jobs than its earlier efforts to work with St. Lucie and Martin counties to market themselves as the Research Coast and attract science and medical research companies. None of those efforts has resulted in any jobs in Indian River County.
“We are looking to attract other green technology interests,” said Helen Castletine, the Chamber’s Economic Development Director. ““The county has started marketing itself at industry trade shows. We are looking to attract other green technology interests.”
How did these startup companies, at least one with international backing, find their way to Indian River County?
“I wish I could say five years ago we started focusing on (attracting green companies), but what happened really is that investors started visiting our area,” said County Commissioner Wesley Davis, whose district includes the Fellsmere projects.
In the case of Green Flight International, company president Doug Rodante was put in touch with City Manager Jason Nunemaker by Sebastian’s Ray Coniglio when the two attended a conference and Rodante said he was looking for rural land and a business-friendly environment.
Green Flight International is using land provided by Fellsmere to grow a test crop of elephant grass and energy cane, which will be used to feed algae in an effort to create a renewable diesel fuel.
Another firm, Melbourne-based PetroAlgae, came to Fellsmere in 2006 when one of its founders decided his 18-acre property there would make a good lab and algae farm.
In the past year, PetroAlgae – which employs some 35 researchers at the Fellsmere facility -- has become one of the darlings of environmentally conscious politicians, and this past summer was visited by Rep. Bill Posey and Gov. Charlie Crist touting their green credentials.
"Developing new ways to meet our energy needs is important to our nation’s economic growth and Florida’s climate and business environment is a perfect fit for such research," Congressman Posey said when he visited.
Fellsmere’s Nunemaker said the mayor has been discussing potentially partnering with PetroAlgae to help it secure the grants it needs to move forward with its next phase.
INEOS New Planet BioEnergy sought out the county a couple of years ago when commissioners put out a request for parties interested in using its garbage to create clean energy.
Particularly attractive to INPB was Ocean Spray plant location, right next to a landfill where it can get the feedstock it needs to operate.
“I think what was special about us is we have a lot of room around the landfill for expansion,” said Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan. “A lot of places don’t have as much land as we do.”
It was also a perfect fit for INPB business model, which envisages producing green ethanol locally for a local market.
“All the ethanol you are consuming today comes from outside of Florida, there is no domestic production,” INPB Vice President of Operations Tex Carter said recently in an appearance before the Indian River Neighborhood Association.
“One of the things that is attractive to us is that this is a market where there is no competition, (ethanol) has to come from the Midwest or from offshore. One of the compelling factors is that it is a market that is here already, that is very well established and where we will be able to sell a product we think will be much more competitive, so that means lower cost to benefit the consumer.”
In addition to the federal grant, the Florida Governor’s Energy Office has awarded INBP a $2.5 million grant.
The challenge facing INPB now, Carter said, is to leverage these funds into proving “the technology is viable and we will do what we say we are able to do, which is turn a waste product into a useful product. If the demonstration is solid, if the technology is solid, if it doesn’t pollute, if it doesn’t do any of the bad things you don’t want it to do, then we are on our own to grow our business without government assistance.”
Startup funding for these operations is critical as they move from the theoretical to the commercially practical, but there has never been a better time to be clean energy company with an intriguing idea. The Obama Administration -- which has turned its attention to jobs, jobs, jobs -- has made it clear it sees the future for America in jobs that are green.
“Everything has lined up, everyone is talking about alternate energy,” said the Chamber’s Castletine. “It is a really hot-button issue with the world right now, not just Indian River County. The government has become involved and there is a lot of stimulus money going to alternate energy projects.
“Timing is everything.”
To try not to oversimplify its processes, INBP is proposing to take woody biomass and yard waste, and turn it into a synthesis gas, which becomes the “feedstock” for the next stage in the process. At this point, a naturally occurring bacteria is introduced which consumes the gas and turns it into ethanol. The ethanol is then separated from the water it has been living in, and viola, you have ethanol that can be sold on the open market.
“These bacteria live in a water mixture with some vitamins and some minerals so they stay healthy and the bacteria eat the gas and excrete ethanol,” Carter said. “That is the magic in our process. We spin the ethanol out of the liquid and the water is recycled back through the plant.”
The plans also call for the plant, once it is operational, to run on its own power.
During the gasification process, which creates through heat a carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, steam is produced as it is cooled. That steam is captured and run through turbines which will be used to power the plant.
“Since this will be the first demonstration plant in the world for this technology, it is also where one of our parent companies, INEOS Bio, will be showcasing the technology internationally,” Carter said. “So we will have folks locally who will be able to work with the folks on an international level with the business community to explain the technology, present the way it works, demonstrate it and ultimately represent INEOS Bio’s interest in the licensing business.”
Another of the advantages of this technology -- as opposed to the corn-based ethanol produced in the Midwest -- is that it puts no strain on the food supply.
“We are more efficient than a corn-based ethanol plant because we are producing our own power,” Carter said. “Where they have power consumption, we have a closed loop on water, there is no change or pollution of that water and it doesn’t take energy to grow the garbage.
“In a market economy, if a lot of corn is used to make ethanol, then you are competing with a lot of other uses for that corn and you are competing with transportation costs for corn. We don’t take anything out of the food stream and we don’t have to haul our stuff all over the place to get it to the right location.”
In fact, Carter says, Florida is the perfect location for the type of waste his company needs.
“Another thing that caused us to select Florida is that Florida has the highest per capita generation of vegetative waste and woody biomass of any state in the United States,” he said. “Our process will convert woody biomass and yard waste into ethanol. You have more of it here, but today it is going into landfills or the kinds of plants that burn woody biomass to generate power. What we will do is convert that woody biomass into syngas that is converted into ethanol. “
If the operation becomes fully functional, Carter envisions having to go to other landfills to purchase waste as we won’t be able to produce enough in Indian River County to run the process.
”If this thing takes off Indian River County will provide enough fuel stock that we could extend the life of the landfill indefinitely,” Commissioner O’Bryan said.
The Chamber’s Castletine said the other green technology interests the county is pursuing include a “solar panel manufacturer and a maker of energy efficient LED lights.” She stressed that those discussions are still exploratory, but said if they were to come, they could mean up to 500 jobs with the solar panel maker and as many as 200 jobs with the light manufacturer.
Those jobs certainly could be used in a county with an unemployment rate hovering around 14 percent. But for now, the green gamble is on INPB, GreenFlight International and PetroAlgae to, as INBP’s Carter says, “do what we say we can do.” If they can do that, who knows where it might lead.
“Companies like to be around other successful companies, it’s that clustering effect,” Castletine said. “Hopefully, once we are off and running we will attract even more attention.”