SEBRING — Three years ago, Highlands County was on the cusp of a bio boom time with hundreds of jobs looming in construction, agriculture and technology with buzz words such as biofuels, ethanol production and renewable energy.
But the big plans were called off for a BP ethanol production plant and Highlands Evirofuels seemed forever stalled in its plans for an ethanol plant.
Now after that huge false start, the biofuels industry may yet impact Highlands County and the Heartland.
Southeast Renewable Fuels CEO Aaron Pepper said the company’s first ethanol production facility, currently under construction south of Clewiston, is scheduled to become operational in 2015.
The Sweet Sorghum Ethanol & Green Power Plant will operate year-round and employ about 50 full-time employees at the factory and about 150 to 200 employees involved in the agricultural aspect of the project, he said. Southeast Renewable Fuels has an agreement to provide ethanol to Shell Oil Company.
“This is our first one, but we do have plans to build as many as three of these [ethanol production facilities] in Florida,” Pepper noted.
They are currently looking at locations in Indian River County and the northern part of Glades County, he said.
Indian River County already has a biofuels facility - the Indian River BioEnergy Center, near Vero Beach, built by INEOS Bio Co.
Pepper said the INEOS facility uses a “high-tech” approach to make ethanol called cellulosic.
“We are more of the traditional. We model ourselves after the Brazilian-style ethanol plant using liquid sugars obtained from not sugar cane, but sweet sorghum in our case,” he said.
Florida’s subtropical climate provides the opportunity for two or possible three harvests per year of sweet sorghum because it only takes 100 to 120 days to mature, unlike sugarcane, which takes a year, Pepper explained. Collectively, the yield per acre will probably be the best in the industry, much better than sugarcane and much better than corn.
Highlands project still in the works
Highlands EnviroFuels manager and U.S. Envirofuels President Bradley Krohn said his company’s Highlands County project is still in the works. He noted that the project has been around for five years and that many likely believe its not going to happen.
“The project is still alive and we are still moving it forward,” he said. “We have kept a fairly low profile the last couple of years primarily because of the political instability with ethanol.”
The oil industry has attempted to discredit the ethanol industry and has pushed for a repeal of the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, which has hindered investment in the ethanol industry, Krohn explained.
“We have revised the scope of the project, but it is still an advanced biofuels facility that we are planning on building,” he said. “It may be ethanol or it may be some different type of advanced biofuel.”
Currently they are working on the detailed design engineering for the facility, Krohn said. “We still have local growers as investors and we brought in additional growers from Iowa who are investors.”
Highlands County Economic Development Commission Executive Director Stephen Weeks believes Highlands County will have a continued interest in the biofuels industry - either on the ethenol or biodiesel side - because the county is a farming community that creates the raw materials.
The EDC is looking into various ways of bringing the industry to Highlands County, he said.
The biggest focus is on developing seed crops and seeing if farmers can be enticed to grow them, Weeks said. Then hopefully a manufacturing facility could be built locally.
Education for a growth industry
South Florida State College will start its Bioenergy Program in August with degree and college credit certificate programs in biofuels technology and biomass cultivation.
BioEnergy Program lead instructor Beth Birch said BP’s canceled plans for an ethanol plant in Highlands County did have a huge impact, but she noted the construction of the Southeast Renewable Fuels plant near Clewiston and U.S. EnviroFuels continued plans for Highlands County.
Along with Southeast Renewable’s plans for more facilities, it seems there are going to be some good opportunities within the region, she said.
The SFSC BioEnergy Program will be educating the technicians who will be working in the biofuels production plants, Birch said. The program’s other component, biomass cultivation, ties in with the strong agricultural history of the region with a look to the future.
TerViva, a California company, is very interested in this area, she noted. The company has an interest in the Pongamia tree, which produces oily nuts that are used to make biodiesel. The tree can be grown in groves similar to citrus groves.
The current local focus is on ethanol, but biodiesel is important as well, Birch said.
The Indian River BioEnergy Center was built on a former Ocean Spray factory site near the county’s landfill.
Commercial-scale production began at the center in July 2013 converting biomass waste into bioethanol.
The center cost more than $130 million and created more than 400 construction, engineering and manufacturing jobs during its development, according to INEOS. The center has 65 full-time employees and provides $4 million annually in payroll to the local community.
Indian River County Chamber of Commerce President Penny Chandler said the BioEnergy Center is unique because it is serving as a demonstration plant with business people and community leaders coming from all over the world to see the operation.
“They are like visitors,” she said. “They are coming to town; they are staying in hotels; they are eating in restaurants.”
The plant employed several hundred people in the community when it was being built and now it has an employee base that contributes to the local economy, Chandler noted.
Also, it is taking carbon-based waste out of the waste stream and creating another product, which is another positive for the community, she said.
Fuels America reports that the renewable fuel sector, including conventional and cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel and advanced biofuels and their suppliers generate $319.1 million of total economic output annually in Florida District 17, which includes Highlands County. The sector supports 796 jobs and generates $51.7 million in wages annually.
Fuels America states that it is a coalition of organizations committed to protecting America’s Renewable Fuel Standard and promoting the benefits of all types of renewable fuel already growing in America.