Iowa Public Television


QandA with Todd Becker, CEO Green Plains Renewable Energy

posted on October 23, 2009

Q: What does today mean for Green Plains Renewable Energy?
Todd Becker: Well, it's a big day for our company. It's big day I think for the state of Iowa. It's a big day for the governor to come out and and then look at a project they've invested in, but for Green Plains Renewable Energy today we're producing 480 million gallons of ethanol and our plants are located in 6 different or 4 different states and 6 different plants, and for today what we're showing is a rolling out what could potentially be a next generation technology. What we're focused on is capturing the CO2 and becoming and having a better carbon footprint as well as producing a high quality feedstock for either food, feed, or energy.

Q: Some people say that corn ethanol and bio-diesel have proven themselves to be some what viable and that this is an extremely experimental stage for algae production.
Todd Becker: I think ethanol is here to stay. It's a permanent part of our fuel supply, we're going to run up to 10%, we actually produce more ethanol now than we import from Venezuela on -- on oil and I think that's a huge impact to the economy. Ethanol has turned the corner. The industry is healthier. It's a more accepted product. It's here to stay. Now, in order to get to next generation-- second generating technologies you have to have first generation technologies succeed. So now that we're seeing corn ethanol succeed and to -- start to really turn the corner we can really focus ourselves on next generations, second and third generations, but you have to have a successful first generation technology in order to really build out a second and third generation. And if you think about ethanol this is really truly the only fully operating renewable energy industries in the world.

We're fully built out, we have inputs, we have outputs, we have distribution, we have supply chains, this industry has built itself out. It is truly an example of how next generations are going to build themselves out and this is truly just a next step in the evolution of reducing or independence from foreign oil.

Q: It's hard to not see hundreds of acres of corn fields just outside of Shenandoah. It seems from the outside a strange place to build an algae ethanol production facility in heart of the corn belt.
Todd Becker: This is an ethanol production facility that we're going to capture the CO2 from the process and grow algae, and then we're going to use that algae as an added value into something else like an advanced bio-fuel. We'll take the oil out of the algae and we'll make bio-diesel. That's going to happen potentially down the road. We'll take the fiber out of the algae and we'll make an advanced or high quality animal field. And then we'll take -- potentially just the -- the bio-mass, burn it here, and create our own energy.

Q: How far are we away from commercial scale?
Todd Becker: Well, I'm thinking we're making steps. You know we've gone now from the lab onto a bench to really what's behind us here which is a -- a phase one photo-bio react of a multi-phases pilot project. The next project is going to move outside. These reactors are about 18 inches by about 10 feet. The next reactors that were building right now as we speak are three feet by twenty feet and we'll put a lot more of those outside, capture more of our CO2, grow more algae, and continue with the process. Scaling up to commercial ability, you know, it takes a long time but in reality we could be a year away-- we could be five years away. We're going to find a lot more out now that we have these operating today with the CO2 that we're going to take into these reactors we will be able to measure the amount of algae that we produce and we will be able to tell how quickly we can scale up so we can take every bit of CO2 that the plant that we're at today produces and use it to grow algae.

Q: Capturing of CO2-- how important is that looking at in the face of potential regulatory moves in Washington?
Todd Becker: Well, I think it's hugely important. I think today ethanol has we know is closed looped. The CO2 that we produce goes back in to grow the corn crop, we take the corn crop, we make fuel out of it, a third of the kernel goes back into the CO2 and it's a closed loop cycle. Everybody's really focused on carbon emissions. So, today if we could take that closed loop cycle where we're actually using the carbon to grow corn, capture it and become carbon negative, we believe and I think the world believes that carbon has value.

So, what we'll be able to do is to release our footprint here to be carbon negative, potentially, take that -- what we do then is we create the carbon credits that are then bought and sold on the open market for industries that can't do the same thing, but this has the potential really not just to be used in ethanol. This has the potential to be used in any body that emits carbon.

Q: In ten years what might we see here?
Todd Becker: Well, we're hoping in ten years what you'll see here is a full scale commercial plant with lots of these reactors that take all the CO2 from this plant and then we're going to run that feed through our dryers that we have today because we figured out that algae is a high quality feed stock and that cattle, poultry, and hogs want it and it's a very high value feedstock and hopefully we can create a high quality feedstock - those tests are happening around the world today as well as the possibility exists that we're shipping out the algae to further processing for bio-fuels, bio-diesel, and ethanol. All of this is a possibility and then finally we may just be taking the algae, burning it for a bio-mass for energy and powering our ethanol plant fully off the grid.

Q: Would this project be here today without money from the Iowa Power Fund?
Todd Becker: Look, I think the Iowa Power Fund was instrumental in -- in giving us the confidence to move forward. This is as the governor said a truly private/public partnership. You know we -- the Iowa Power Fund gave -- gave a grant to Green Plains which then is used to bio-process algae of 2.1 million dollars. We match that grant with our own money to invest and we spend more money since then. So, yes, the Iowa Power Fund and the governor and the state of Iowa is hugely instrumental in us having the confidence to move forward and -- and really focus on R&D and try to get to this point. But -- but I think in general the world is going this direction and I think we're on the cutting edge here.

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