The presence of Cascade Grain Products on the shores of the Columbia River speaks volumes more than its mere provincial presence suggests.
The $200 million corn ethanol plant is at the vanguard of a quickly evolving field of alternative fuels. And, when it opens to full productivity in June, it will be the largest ethanol plant on the West Coast.
It is a lodestone of alternative-energy promise amid declining national faith in Middle East petroleum imports, while at the same time it is part of a quickly expanding industry often criticized for its scientific claims.
The first test run of a unit train hauling 20 cars of Midwest-grown corn to Cascade Grain is expected this week. By the end of March, deliveries will ramp up to a normal production pace at around 110 cars twice a week, with annual amounts at 40 million bushels of corn being used to feed the plant. Grinding for ethanol will start in May, with full production in June.
Following a fermentation process, the corn will be distilled into a 200-proof alcohol in an annual quantity of 113.3 million gallons of un-denatured ethanol. While the overwhelming majority is destined for blending with petroleum-based products for fuel, less significant outcomes include neutral grain spirits that will be further refined for human consumption at places such as the Hood River Distillery.
Carbon dioxide created as a bi-product of the ethanol creation process will be passed to a neighboring facility for processing.
Charles Carlson, president of Cascade Grain, which is based out of Ridgefield, Wash., said the carbon dioxide will be in liquid form. Uses for it include as an additive in softdrinks and beer, or as a cleaning agent in high-tech operations.
A Delaware-based company called Praxair Distribution Inc. is expected to build the carbon dioxide processing plant next year.
Fuel is king
There was no better incentive for Cascade Grain to build its plant in Oregon than the 2007 state legislation that required filling stations to blend fuel with 10 percent ethanol.
'In my estimation, it was the biggest deciding factor,' Carlson said of the selection to Oregon. 'Unless you have a market for your product, you're not going to go there.'
And with Oregon's renewable fuel standard, a separate piece of legislation that encourages the use of 'green' energy sources, he anticipates much of the ethanol produced will flow right back to users in the state.
Washington state is expected to follow suit, bumping up its standard from a present number of 2 percent ethanol to 10 percent. Due to California's environmental nightmare with the gasoline additive MTBE, ethanol is quickly being embraced as the clean substitution in that state.
In Carlson's home state of Minnesota, ethanol standards are moving into the 20 percent realm.
Though significantly higher, the percentages pale when compared to alternative fuel additions in other countries. In Brazil, for instance, ethanol produced from sugar cane feedstocks provide 100 percent of the fuel for specialty hydrous ethanol cars. Nationwide, the more efficient sugar-cane ethanol is added at roughly 22 percent to gasoline.
Cascade Grain Product's history goes back a decade prior to the 2007 legislation. In 1999, the company was granted an exempt energy facility designation from the state. The distinction allows certain energy companies, such as ethanol and biofuel producers, to build plants in Oregon without need of a site certificate. The exemption was granted to Cascade Grain because it has no need for a pipeline.
'We will bring it to market by truck, rail and barge,' Carlson said. Rail delivery will largely serve local markets, with barge service extending not only into Portland but up and down the West Coast, even to Hawaii, Carlson said.
Other incentives applied. One is the Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit, which grants business a 35 percent tax break on project cost tied to alternative energy production. A second incentive is the local establishment of an enterprise zone at Port Westward, which provides additional tax breaks over a five-year period in exchange for the promise of full-time, family-wage job creation.
On a federal level, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 promotes investment in alternative fuel industries by setting production levels of renewable fuels at 8 billion gallons this year, and up to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Oregon Rep. Brad Witt of Clatskanie, the small community located south of the Port Westward plant where Cascade Grain is located, is a staunch supporter of the ethanol legislation, and said there are environmental incentives, including reducing the effects of global warming, to take into consideration.
'I am absolutely an advocate for alternative fuels. It is the right thing to do. It is bringing us one step closer to green energy,' Witt said.
Many of ethanol's critics argue that, as a nation, we are only exchanging one set of problems for another as we accelerate down a corn-fueled highway. Leading the criticisms is whether corn as a feedstock will drive the price of food higher as competition sets in, a claim the ethanol industry denies. Another is that the process to make corn ethanol consumes more energy than the final product contributes, and that corn ethanol is a stop-gap fuel rushed to market as a political maneuver that has no real staying power.
Carlson has heard them all.
'There's a lot of misguided information out there. We're just an easy target,' he said.
Carlson, a Minnesota native who's background is in agriculture, including a stint as vice president of merchandising for agricultural giant Con Agra, said some of the wilder claims include statements that ethanol production has driven up the cost of everything from spaghetti to beer. Carlson cautions that a full analysis of the debate should take place before leaping to conclusions.
'There are some many crazy reports out there,' he said.
There is a backdrop of truth with many of the criticisms, however. Corn is increasingly competing for acreage in parts of the United States. Carlson points the rise in corn acreage cited in United States Department of Agriculture reports. It is the highest corn-acreage levels since 1944, he said. Other USDA articles, dating back to as recent as April 2006, report that the increased demand could begin to cut into lands less suited for corn production, such as soybean fields. As domestic demand increases, markets outside of the United States could ramp up production to fill the gap as U.S. corn exports decline.
With more demand, the transportation costs begin to even out, making it more attractive for more remote corn-producing regions to transport the product.
Witt has not turned a blind eye to the critics of corn ethanol who question its effect on food prices and its overall staying power as other fuel technologies make headway into the energy stream.
'Certainly, if we continue along our present price trajectory, it is likely, perhaps, not to be sustainable into the future in terms of its competition with animal and human food stocks,' he said.
An industry trend is leaning toward cellulosic ethanol, a more complex process that extracts the sugars for fermentation by breaking down cellulose in plants.
Witt pointed to the local feedstock options present with cellulosic ethanol production, including forest matter, grasses and even waste products from tree plantations in Columbia County.
A second fuel option Witt said deserves exploration is the use of animal wastes to create biodiesel. In Oregon, where rendering plants for animal waste has become a thing of the past, the presence of such plants could have a twofold benefit, he said.
Carlson said he is also aware of the technology horizon for ethanol. Though converting the corn ethanol processing plant into a cellulosic ethanol use is not really feasible, he said there is enough staying power in corn ethanol that it will be a significant part of the fuel equation for some time to come.
The ethanol plant is also being assessed to determine whether corn oil can be extracted from stillage for conversion into biofuel. This fall, Cascade Grain is working on a study with the Oregon Renewable Energy Center on the conversion of solid municipal wastes into fuel.
'We want to pick the best technology that is out there,' Carlson said. 'Why not take those millions of tons going to a landfill and turn them into a clean fuel?'