EPA approves ethanol pathway for advanced biofuel status

Reported by: Rebecca Rivers
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Updated: 4/25/2013 8:54 am

Every gallon of ethanol currently being produced in the U.S. earns a RIN, or Renewable Identification Number. But ethanol now coming out of Western Plains Energy, LLC of Oakley, Kansas is earning higher recognition for reducing green house gases as an advanced biofuel. Chris Cogburn with the National Sorghum Producers said that this is great news for the sorghum industry.

"Any ethanol plant, any bio-diesel plant that produces a renewable fuel, they give every gallon a number. That RIN number is 38 characters long, and it tells when it was produced, where it was produced, all that information," Cogburn said. "But the key for sorghum is, are we an advanced RIN or are we a conventional RIN?"

The EPA approved a pathway for grain sorghum last December. So with the approved pathway plus the help of a new $40 million dollar anaerobic digester, the Western Plains Energy plant is on the path to earning advanced RINs.

"The technologies that are approved right now by EPA are using biogas instead of natural gas, and then you generate your own electricity on site with what they call combined heat and power, and so you're not buying electricity off the grid," Cogburn said. "You're basically a self-contained system, and if you use grain sorghum then you're making advanced RINs. There's one plant up in Kansas that is working on doing that now and they're getting their digester started up."

The methane digester is certainly an investment for the Kansas plant. But it makes the plant practically self-sufficient. Plus, the advanced biofuel level ethanol produced will be worth more in the market place. 

"They're using manure and some other feedstuffs that they feed the digester that produces the biogas, they take that biogas and burn it instead of natural gas," Cogburn said. "It takes a lot of heat to run an ethanol plant because you basically have to cook the mash, which is when they grind the sorghum and mix it with water. They cook that mash, and that ferments and that's how they make ethanol. At the same time they do that, they're producing distillers grain which is no different."

Cogburn said that more ethanol production pathways have been submitted to the EPA for the advanced status, but are still awaiting approval.

"we're still working with EPA as we move further down the process is the carbon capture sequestration," Cogburn said. "They would be able to capture their CO2, pump it back in the oil field, that enhances oil recovery, but that CO2 is captured underground. EPA has not made any decision yet on how they're going to handle that. But if that could happen, then the plant out here at Levelland could be making advanced ethanol from grain sorghum."

Diamond Ethanol in Levelland can produce around 40 million gallons of ethanol each year from sorghum and corn. That translates to using about 17 million bushels of feedstock for ethanol, which they obtain mostly from local producers.

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