Power in the Pasture
Gasoline, take notice; your days are numbered. Maybe not entirely, but there's a stirring on the Texas plains to bring ethanol--an alternative to gasoline--to Texans. And to produce it in the Lone Star State.
Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, can be produced chemically or biologically from grains, agricultural wastes or any material containing starch or sugar, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC). Twenty-one states produce about 4.5 billion gallons annually, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
But in a nation with a 140 billion gallon annual gasoline diet, it's hard for ethanol to make serious inroads, according to Tim Snyder, president of Lubbock-based Agri-Energy Solutions Inc. But it is starting to happen.
"Is it safe to say that it's gaining?" Snyder said. "Oh yeah, it sure is."
From the ground
Texas is not one of the states producing ethanol, but ethanol-producing plants are in the works in the Texas Panhandle, Snyder said. As many as five ethanol-producing plants are planned and could be operational by the end of 2007. Corn and grain-sorghum, arriving by rail, are the planned fuel source for ethanol production, which creates byproducts that happen to fit into the existing agricultural plans of the region, Snyder said.
"Making ethanol is a distillation process where starch is extracted from corn and grain sorghum," he said. "[Carbon dioxide] and distiller's grain are co-products from making ethanol. With large numbers of cattle [in Texas], cattle feeders and dairymen can take the distiller's grain, which is a high-quality animal feed."
The carbon dioxide can be used to flash-freeze meat at area packing plants, or it can be injected into the ground to aid marginally-producing oil wells, Snyder said.
Together, the five facilities could produce as much as 390 million gallons of ethanol annually, Snyder said. The first two already broke ground in Hereford, Texas.
With gas prices high and dependency on foreign oil a major issue, getting the facilities operational and providing Texas and the U.S. with fuel alternatives is a priority, Snyder said.
"You [have to] move quickly on it," he said. "Our issue is no one likes to be held ransom by a foreign economy that's trying to gain more security than we are. We want to help our country as well as our oil companies."
For years, the "Hostile Herd" moniker has followed the athletic teams of Hereford High School. The 1.5 million head of dairy and beef cattle in the area stand to be the "helpful herd" when plants developed by White Energy and Panda Energy--both Dallas-based--go online, possibly by late 2006.
After three years of production, the Panda plant could produce 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing some 30 million barrels of imported oil, according to the company.
"Panda is going to burn cow manure as an energy source to fire the plant," according to Sid Shaw, executive vice president of the Hereford Chamber of Commerce. "In the feed yards, we feed more than 1.5 million head of cattle here, so there's plenty of manure."
Panda Energy specializes in burning manure and other agricultural wastes to power its plants, eliminating the need for natural gas as a fuel source. Construction of the two plants means jobs for Hereford, Shaw said.
"It'll be a huge shot in the arm, creating a lot of jobs both during construction and during operation," he said. "The two plants together, you're probably talking more than 100 jobs, after construction. And the trucking industry will be huge. They'll probably run 24 hours a day, bringing manure to the plants. It's a win-win situation."
It's Panda Energy's first ethanol facility, according to spokesman Bill Pentack, and it will produce about 100 million gallons annually. Actual construction of a plant that size usually runs between 12 and 14 months, according to Agri-Energy's Snyder.
Once ethanol flows from Texas plants or into Texas by rail from other states, the next hurdle is blending it into E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Texas grocery chains, Kroger and HEB have jumped into the game, promising to provide the fuel at a few of their Texas locations. In May 2006, HEB announced plans to add E85 fuel pumps to five of its locations along or near Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Dallas.
The locations place the alternative fuel near a major artery from Mexico into the interior U.S. They would also make it convenient for Texas travelers and for local and state agencies, such as the Texas Department of Transportation. The agency operates more than 7,000 alternative fuel vehicles, including 642 flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs), according to Dave Ballinger of the Texas Building and Procurement Commission. FFVs can run on gasoline or E85.
Flexing some muscle
Pure ethanol has an octane rating of about 113, while regular unleaded gasoline's octane has a rating of about 87. Octane ratings indicate how much the fuel can be compressed before spontaneously igniting.
Unleaded's 87 rating means it takes the least amount of pressure to ignite. The higher octane of ethanol, which is a pure alcohol, means an engine will run hotter and with higher performance capabilities. So high that the open-wheel Indy Racing League will switch from methanol, similar to ethanol but made from non-renewable resources, to ethanol in 2007.
Traditional one-fuel vehicles aren't really the target for ethanol fuels, according to NEVC. While it is possible to convert a vehicle to run on E85 after a consumer purchases it, the process involves extensive changes to a car's fuel system and engine that are not only not recommended, they are also illegal, according to Michelle Kautz, director of communications for NEVC.
"They can be converted, but it's not legal," she said. "We do know that people do so, we just don't recommend it."
Every day, however, new FFVs roll onto U.S. showroom floors. There's already an increasing number of FFVs on the road, Kautz said.
"Right now there are approximately 6 million flex-fuel vehicles," she said. "That represents a little less than 8 percent of the total vehicles in the nation, but as far as E85 use goes, I think availability is increasing across the country."
There are more than 400,000 FFVs in Texas, so the demand for E85 is there, according to Karl Doenges with Clean Fuel USA, in Georgetown, Texas. That has created one problem for ethanol users.
"If there's a downside, it's that we don't have enough of it," Doenges said. "What's exciting about E85 is that we're not waiting for Congress to do this or the automakers to do that. We just have to be patient and wait for [the automakers] to finish."
To supply the FFVs already in service, the Panhandle plants are a step in the right direction, he said. Recently completed plants in New Mexico and Colorado and facilities planned for Louisiana should also help.
There are anywhere from 30 to 60 new plants under construction across the country, Doenges said--evidence that the pieces of the ethanol puzzle are falling into place.