Is Ethanol the fuel of the future?

The ethanol plant coming to Clovis will use 45 to 50 million bushels of corn a year, officials said (CNJ photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A 105 million-gallon per year ethanol plant will be online in Clovis by 2007. Construction will begin this October.

The plant is a joint venture of ConAgra Trade Group and Carlyle/Riverstone Renewable Energy.

It will be located at ConAgra’s Peavey grain elevator property on U.S. 60/84.

This is ConAgra’s first ethanol venture, according to ConAgra
officials.

Here is a snapshot into the plant and America’s growing ethanol industry:

Water demands met

The Clovis ethanol plant will consume approximately 315 million gallons of water per year, according to plant officials.

Per day, the dry-mill plant will use approximately 880,000 gallons,
officials said.

In arid eastern New Mexico, where groundwater supplies are dwindling, water is a dire concern for not only residents, but for potential business investors.

The worries ConAgra had about meeting its water needs in the region have been appeased, according to ConAgra Executive Vice President for Business Strategies Martin Higgins. Wastewater from the city
of Clovis could keep the processing and cooling equipment at the plant
humming, according to Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis Industrial Development Corp.

The wastewater option is one of several, Gentry said. A definite water source for the plant should be pinned down in about 30 days, Higgins said.

But even if the plant decided to use fresh water, it would consume less of it than the agricultural industry, Gentry said.

Under state mandates, a commercial operation is allowed to use 1.29-acre-feet of water per year, whereas an agricultural operation is allowed to use 3-acre-feet per year, Gentry said.

“Whenever you transfer water rights from agricultural to commercial use, you cut down on consumptive use of that water by two thirds,” Gentry said.

Corn shipments will triple
ConAgra currently receives 15 to 20 million bushels of corn per year from Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and other places in the Midwest, according to ConAgra Executive Vice President for Business Strategies Martin Higgins.

The company sells corn meal to local ranchers.

With its new ethanol plant, the amount of corn ConAgra ships to Clovis will triple, according to Higgins. Once the plant goes online next year, 45 to 50 million bushels of corn a year will be shipped to the plant via BNSF Railway.

The ethanol produced at the plant will be sold in California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, Higgins said.

Economics of ethanol
The ethanol boom has driven the price of corn up 40 to 45 cents per bushel in the past year, according to David Gibson, executive director of the Corn Producers Association of Texas.

For corn growers, the demand is a blessing. But ranchers are leery.

If prices continue to rise, “That could ruin us,” said Fort Sumner rancher Bill Wertheim, who owns about 1,500 head of cattle.

Depending on the season, 20 to 40 percent of his cattle’s food supply is corn meal, he said. His profits stand to drop substantially with the boom, he said.

Gibson contends corn growers in America can satisfy the agriculture and ethanol industry.

Ethanol as an alternative fuel, he says, has a bright future.

“With the current energy demands, not only in the U.S., but in the world — with the growth of countries like China — the market for ethanol will only grow,” he said.

Ethanol process include fermentation

The Clovis ethanol plant will use corn to create ethanol, a form of alcohol that can be used as a power source.

Mixed with 15 percent gasoline, ethanol can power vehicles, and has been lauded as an alternative fuel for America’s vehicles.

Corn, however, is not the only thing that contains ethanol. It can also be squeezed from grapes, soybeans, wheat and potatoes.

“Anything which contains sugar, you can make ethanol from,” said Eastern New Mexico microbiologist Manuel Varela, who speaks fondly of ethanol.

He uses it to purifies strands of DNA in his laboratory, following in the vein of famous scientist, Louis Pasteur, who also studied ethanol his petridishes.

Varela explained the process of creating ethanol from plants, fruits, and vegetables:

• The source must be crushed.
• It must be mixed with hot water, which allows the enzymes to degrade the starch in the plant to sugar.
• It is added to a mixing tank, a process called mashing.
• Once it is mashed, it must be mixed with hops and brewed.
• It must be fermented, pasteurized and bottled. During fermentation, microbes create ethanol.

Fast facts

Since 1980, government subsidies for ethanol have totaled more than $10 billion.

— mccain.senate.gov

A gallon of ethanol costs $2.24 to produce compared to 63 cents per gallon of gasoline.
— www.pureenergysystems.com