Summary:

Biofuel production nationwide has been woefully behind schedule as would-be producers struggle to just get their first commercial plants rolling. The U.S. government wants to help and on Thursday announced loan guarantee commitments totaling $571 million for Coskata, Enerkem, and a JV from Valero.

Coskata: So Close, Yet So Far for the Cellulosic Ethanol Biz

Biofuel production nationwide has been woefully behind schedule as would-be producers struggle to just get their first commercial plants rolling. The U.S. government wants to help, and on Thursday, announced loan guarantee commitments totaling $571 million for cellulosic ethanol startup Coskata, waste-to-energy company Enerkem and Diamond Green Diesel, a joint venture from oil giant Valero and Darling International.

Coskata has gotten a letter of intent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a $250 million loan guarantee to build a plant to make ethanol from woody biomass. The plant will have the capacity to make 55 million gallons per year. Coskata’s plant plans seriously stalled during the recession, and Coskata has been waiting for this loan guarantee to come through. The company is well-known for touting a $1 per gallon production price and its backers including Khosla Ventures, General Motors, and Advanced Technology Ventures.

The USDA also awarded Enerkem a conditional commitment for an $80 million loan guarantee to build a 10 million-gallon-per-year refinery for making ethanol out of municipal solid waste. Enerkem, which uses a thermochemical trash-to-syngas process, was already awarded a $50 million Department of Energy grant, and also raised funding from trash giant Waste Management, Cycle Capital, Rho Ventures, Braemar Energy Ventures and BDR Capital.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is awarding a $241 million loan guarantee — its first for a biofuel plant — to Diamond Green Diesel. The guarantee will help Valero build a plant in Louisiana that will make 137 million gallons of biofuel per year primarily from animal fats and used cooking oil.

The USDA said it’s not done doling out financial help to biofuel producers. It plans to announce new rules “soon” that will make more money available from the loan guarantee program, which originated from a 2008 Farm Bill.

Lining up money to build refineries has been a huge hurdle for a slew of biofuel companies in the past two years. The recession is only partly to blame. Many of these companies have encountered technical problems for converting plants and wastes into fuel. Investors once flocked to these startup companies, especially when the federal government announced goals to gradually increase the nation’s supply of renewable fuel until it hits 36 billion in 2022.

Well, hitting the goals has proven a lot more difficult. Congress initially set 100 million gallons as the 2010 target for cellulosic biofuel, but the Environmental Protection Agency cut that to 6.5 million gallons. It appears the industry might have produced less than 1 million gallons last year, reported ClimateWire, citing an estimate by a government analyst.

Just last week, reports emerged that Range Fuels, backed by venture capital firms such as Khosla Ventures, was laying off workers and shutting down its refinery in Georgia in order to tackle technical problems and raise more money. Colorado-based Range Fuels received an $80 million loan guarantee from the USDA to help fund its refinery, which began production by making methanol instead of ethanol last year.

Perhaps the USDA will see quicker success from its latest bets. Aside from Coskata and Enerkem, the agency also touted a loan guarantee conditional commitment for a $75 million loan guarantee to INEOS Bio and its partner New Planet Energy, which it first announced a few weeks ago.

INEOS Bio (which is the biofuel arm of petrochemical giant INEOS) and developer New Planet Energy say they will use the loan guarantee to build the “INEOS BioEnergy Center,” near Vero Beach, Florida, that will produce 8 million gallons of advanced biofuels and 6 MW of biomass power from plant waste and trash per year. The companies say the center will begin producing biofuels and bioenergy in 2012, and will create 175 jobs during the construction process and 50 jobs when the center is completed.

Loan guarantees are important awards for companies looking to build plants for these next-gen biofuel projects. A loan guarantee essentially is a promise by the government to back a loan if the company can’t pay it, and it enables companies to finance projects with a better interest rate and at a lower cost.

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