Associated Press Writer
HOOVER, Ala.—Ethanol made from tree limbs pulled off curbside heaps is going into gas tanks in what the federal government described Thursday as the nation's first program recycling municipal wood wastes into automotive biofuel.
The first shipment of E-85 — a gasoline blend that is 85 percent ethanol — delivered to the Birmingham suburb of Hoover was only 100 gallons produced at an upstart factory in western Alabama. It was just enough to fill a few police vehicles at a kickoff ceremony attended by city and state leaders.
Industry leaders have hopes for something bigger: A network of small ethanol plants near heavily populated areas to collect wood waste, process it into biofuel and transport it to filling stations at a lower cost than gasoline. Ethanol is most commonly made from corn.
"We don't produce corn, but we can grow pine trees," said Mark Bentley, executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition. "If we can establish a couple of plants in the state to convert that tree waste into cellusoic fuel it can be used ... to fuel entire fleets."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Energy Department, Tiffany Edwards, said Hoover was believed to be the first U.S. city to convert its wood wastes into fuel.
"There hasn't been any commercial, large-scale production of E-85 with wood in the United States," she said. The Alabama plant plans to expand, but she said its current output is too small to be considered a commercial facility.
The city of 73,000 people has aggressively sought alternative fuels, and Mayor Tony Petelos said 88 percent of its vehicles are powered by a combination of ethanol fuels, electricity and recycled cooking oil.
Hoover's biofuel was produced by Gulf Coast Energy, which processes the ethanol at a small pilot factory in Livingston near the Mississippi state line.
The president and CEO of Gulf Coast Energy, Mark Warner, said his company uses a process called bio-mass gasification to break down wood wastes into raw materials through heat and pressure. The components are then combined to produce ethanol, he said.
Small amounts of wood-based fuel will be shipped to Hoover during test runs at the demonstration plant, he said. The company could be producing 45 million gallons of the fuel annually within a year once it obtains funding for a larger, $90 million factory, he said.
"We can shift into a new energy paradigm in this country if we want to. The difficult part right now is financing with the economy," Warner said.
Other companies are working on similar projects. Colorado-based Range Fuels received a $76 million federal grant and is constructing a plant in southern Georgia that's scheduled to begin producing fuel from wood wastes next year.
Warner said the batch of fuel delivered to Hoover was made with wood picked up by city crews, plus tree parts from other areas of the state. Operators are testing wood from different species of trees to find out which ones are best for making ethanol, he said.
Hoover generates enough wood waste in a year to manufacture the amount of fuel it needs, Warner said. Most of the wood from large-scale ethanol production would come from wastes produced by logging and lumber mills, he said, and Alabama has a natural advantage over most states.
"Alabama has unbelievable amounts of wood stocks for this," Warner said. "The whole state is a pine forest."