Range Fuels Piles on Over $100M, But Faces Plant Construction Delays

Next-gen ethanol producer Range Fuels this morning officially confirmed, as we reported last month, that it has raised one of the more sizable funding rounds this year of over $100 million (the WSJ puts the size at $130M). But the company’s release also slips in the fact that the first phase of the ethanol plant it started building back in November won’t be finished until 2009; previously the company had been shooting for sometime in 2008.

It’s a slight delay, but given that Range Fuels has been racing to become the first cellulosic ethanol producer to commercialize the next-gen bio fuel in the U.S., this delay might throw a wrench in that claim to fame. We asked Range Fuels for the reason behind the delay; we’re still waiting to hear back. Update: Range Fuels CEO Mitch Mandich responded by saying “the plant is the first of its kind and even though pushed back we have a multiple year head start over the competition.”

Once the plant, which is currently being built in Soperton, Ga., is up and running it’s expected to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol a year from wood waste out of Georgia‚Äôs pine forests. The bit of construction that Range Fuels had hoped to finish this year is just the initial 20 million-gallon-per-year phase.

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The delay could be a blow because the company has a variety of competitors that are running close to its heels. Coskata, which also uses thermochemical technology to produce ethanol, plans to scale up a pilot project to a 40,000-gallon demonstration facility by the end of 2008, and is also working on a 100 million-gallon-per-year facility somewhere in the U.S. that they hope will go online by early 2011.

Coskata, along with another public firm called The Alternative Energy Technology Center, are also claiming they can produce commercial-scale ethanol for under $1 per gallon. Range Fuels in its latest release says it “projects their costs to be significantly lower than both the enzymatic process and the current corn ethanol production costs that are near $2 per gallon.” While the company didn’t cite a specific cost, you’d assume they’d make it was under $1 per gallon cost if they could.

Range Fuels uses a thermochemical process to turn biomass into synthetic gas and then fuel. The company says this process has significantly lower capital and production costs than enzymatic cellulosic ethanol. Coskata combines this thermochemical process with the use of microbes to convert the syngas. Both are backed by Khosla Ventures.

Range Fuels’ latest nine-digit round of funding was led by Passport Capital and included other investors BlueMountain, Khosla Ventures, Leaf Clean Energy Company and Pacific Capital Group (with participation by the California Employee Retirement System.)

We also asked Range Fuels if this funding round would delay or change their previous plans to do an IPO, which we reported on last August. While we’re still waiting to hear back on that question, too, we’re thinking that the public markets might not be as warm to ethanol companies (even next-gen ones) as they were back in the summer of 2007.

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