Florida Looks to Biofuels to Fix Energy Woes
TAMPA, Fla. Bradley Krohn met with skepticism two years ago when he announced plans to build Florida's first ethanol production plant.
Critics said the fuel additive wouldn't fly outside the Midwest's Corn Belt.
Now Krohn's company, U.S. EnviroFuels LLC, is at the heart of a rush by Florida politicians to embrace ethanol as a gas additive that they hope will transform the Sunshine State from a vulnerable fuel importer to self-reliant fuel producer.
One recent June afternoon, Krohn stood with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who described Krohn's company as a key player in the state's $100 million initiative to fix Florida's energy woes. A few weeks earlier, Krohn was among several alternative fuel entrepreneurs praised by Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
Bush said Florida's sugarcane and other crops could help it compete with the Midwest, where ethanol is usually made from corn. Sugarcane is the main source of ethanol in Brazil.
U.S. EnviroFuels is sticking with the corn distilling process. The company plans to initially import corn from the Midwest, but hopes to buy more from local growers as the state embraces ethanol production. Krohn said the company is also investigating using sugarcane.
Nationally, 91 plants produced 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year -- none of it in Florida, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
Each year, the state burns about 7.5 billion gallons of gas. Krohn said Floridians could consume up to 750 million gallons of ethanol if stations statewide sold a 90 percent gasoline-10 percent ethanol mixture.
U.S. EnviroFuels' $80 million Port of Tampa plant will be able to produce about 40 million gallons of ethanol a year. Construction is set to begin in August. The company also plans to build a second facility. Jacksonville-based Gate Petroleum also has announced plans to build an ethanol plant in north Florida.
"We'd have to build 20 of these plants to satisfy the market potential," said Krohn, who ran a bioenergy program in Missouri before forming U.S. EnviroFuels with two partners in 2003. "There is no ethanol being blended today in Florida, so we identified Florida as a tremendous market opportunity."
Critics warn biofuel production is energy- and water-intensive and that the nation's farms could never supply enough produce to meet current fuel demands.
Others believe in the biofuel.
Billionaire Bill Gates bought into it with a significant investment in a California ethanol company in April. Last week, U.S. automakers pledged to double production of flexible-fuel vehicles hat can run on gasoline and ethanol by 2010. The Department of Energy says the fuel additive could knock up to 60 cents off a gallon of gas by 2015.
Both President Bush and Gov. Bush praise ethanol as a way to wean Americans from their dependence on foreign oil. Gov. Bush said the additive can stretch Florida's fuel supply if a hurricane cuts off the state's gasoline supply. Florida imports almost all of its gasoline by ship.
What could really push Florida into the forefront is a breakthrough in cellulosic biomass ethanol production, distilling citrus pulp, yard waste, peanut shells and other natural waste into a fuel additive. The process now is unproven and expensive.
"We're eagerly working on this problem," said Lonnie Ingram, a biofuels researcher and professor of microbiology at the University of Florida. "It's a technology that's not up and running in any state."
Ingram is trying to raise $20 million to build a prototype biomass ethanol plant. The plant would produce 1 million to 2 million gallons of biomass ethanol a year.
"Florida has the opportunity to be the No. 1 producer of alternative fuels," Ingram said. "We're the biggest biomass producer in the country."
He said the ethanol from the U.S. EnviroFuels plant will be available at Florida gas pumps in October 2007.
Source: Associated Press