Shipley says Eastman interested in biofuels project

Hank Hayes • Nov 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Co. might be a partner in a possible locally developed biofuels facility that would make ethanol from switchgrass, state Rep. Tony Shipley said Wednesday.

Shipley made the disclosure during a Joint Fiscal Review Committee meeting on Capitol Hill to approve an amendment in a $70 million contract allocation made by lawmakers to the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative.

“I have had calls from Eastman to verify they are interested (in biofuels technology),” Shipley, R-Kingsport, told the committee.

“We’ve been working with them for well over a year on this project and how they can incorporate the use of biomass into generating the energy they need for their products,” UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn said of talks with Eastman.

When asked for a response to Shipley’s disclosure, Eastman Corporate Communications spokeswoman Wanda Valentine said in an e-mail: “Eastman is supportive of efforts that lead to emissions reductions, improved energy efficiency and the deployment of technologies that support these goals. Public and private investments that provide incentives for technologies and innovation are needed. If there is an opportunity that fits within the company’s business plan, we will evaluate and pursue if appropriate.”

The biofuels initiative began moving forward when UT and its partner, Illinois- based DuPont-Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE), broke ground in October 2008 on a pilot plant in Vonore, Tenn. That plant, scheduled to begin operation in about 25 days, will use switchgrass and corn cobs as feedstock in producing ethanol.

DDCE Vice President Vonnie Estes told the Joint Fiscal Review Committee that the company’s business model is to license the technology and sell it. The plan, she added, is to also build two other ethanol plants: One in the Midwest and the other in Tennessee.

The plant would cost more than $150 million and employ over 760 people to build it, said Kelly Tiller, director of external operations for UT’s Office of Bioenergy Programs and president and CEO of Genera Energy.

Over a 10-county region, Tiller added the facility would have a $59 million annual impact and support more than 180 workers.

According to UT’s Biofuels Initiative, switchgrass farmers will likely need to be located 30 to 50 miles from the ethanol plant. The initiative said switchgrass can yield about 500 gallons of ethanol per acre.

But, in a fact sheet, the initiative also noted “the market for switchgrass as an energy crop remains limited.”

Estes said DDCE has invested $70 million over three years to develop the ethanol production technology.

Still, lawmakers on the committee noted UT has done a poor job communicating changes in the initiative since it was first announced.

State Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, wanted assurances DDCE wouldn’t take the technology and use it to create jobs elsewhere.

“We’re putting public money into research,” Jackson pointed out.

Estes suggested ethanol could be competitive with gasoline by 2015.

Shipley insisted ethanol development competing with foreign oil is a good thing.

“I think it needs to be made abundantly clear to the people of Tennessee that what we’re really doing here is not just about Tennessee, it’s about national security,” said Shipley, a retired Air Force officer. “History is replete with stories that nations that don’t have control of their own supply of energy don’t long survive. ... It is appropriate for government to step up to the plate and prime the pump.”

Genera Energy was established as a for-profit limited liability company by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation as the vehicle to carry out the biofuels initiative.

DDCE was formed last year as a joint venture of international chemical company DuPont and Danisco’s Genencor division.

Recommended for You