First Commercial Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in US Goes Bankrupt

First Qualifying Cellulosic Ethanol

bankruptcyLast year, to much fanfare, the first batch of qualifying cellulosic ethanol was produced (i.e., it qualified for credits under the EPA program for certifying ethanol for sales). I reported on the development at that time.

Western Biomass Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Blue Sugars Corporation (previously KL Energy) reported the major milestone of claiming the first cellulosic ethanol tax credits under the RFS2 for a 20,069 gallon batch of cellulosic ethanol produced from bagasse (sugar cane waste) in April 2012.

However, regular readers are aware that for years I have been deeply skeptical that cellulosic ethanol as envisioned by — and ultimately mandated by — the US government will be an economic and scalable fuel option. The obstacles to success are significant, and I have described them in detail on many occasions.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility that in some niche applications that modest amounts of cellulosic ethanol may be produced for sale. One of those niches is from waste biomass such as bagasse that is produced during the processing of sugarcane. But in general – despite the proclamations from promoters like Vinod Khosla – the chemistry and physics are formidable obstacles working against the success of cellulosic ethanol. I will state in no uncertain terms that I don’t believe it can ever be mass-produced more cheaply than corn ethanol, and that industry’s financial troubles are well-documented.

Another Reality Check

I was extremely skeptical that the batch of cellulosic ethanol produced by Western Biomass was anything more than a publicity stunt rather than an indication that they had actually managed to conquer the economics of the process. My skepticism was heightened when they never produced another qualifying batch for the rest of the year, and that one batch they did produce was exported to Brazil to be used at the Rio+20 Conference.

Now comes news that Western Biomass Energy has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In my column in which I reported on the initial production of cellulosic ethanol from Western Biomass, I noted:

Cellulosic ethanol commercialization still faces a number of challenges. Capital and operating costs are expected to remain higher than for corn ethanol producers, and even they are currently struggling with low margins. The ethanol market also faces the hurdle of the blend wall, which makes it difficult to expand domestic production without increases in E15 and E85 consumption, and/or ethanol exports.

It will continue to be true that as long as the US government incentivizes these ventures, companies will continue to pursue them. But I believe it is also true that every gallon of production they make will be produced at a significant per gallon loss. Mother nature simply didn’t design cellulose to be easily accessible, and extracting the cellulose, converting the cellulose into sugars, fermenting those sugars to ethanol, and finally purifying that ethanol will continue to be capital and energy-intensive operations.

Investors Should be Cautious

In addition to Western Biomass, one other company has produced qualifying cellulosic fuel. Vinod Khosla-backed KiOR announced earnings this week, while at the same time announcing that they had shipped their first batch of qualifying cellulosic diesel. This was presented as great news, and KiOR’s share price initially surged on the news. But a closer reading of their financial statement signals the kind of warning flags about KiOR that I have been waving for over a year:

The Pasadena, Texas-based firm lost $0.28 per share during the fourth quarter, falling short of the $0.15 per share loss in Q4 2011. However, it beat the Wall Street consensus of a loss of $0.32 per share.

Fourth quarter revenue rounded out at $87,000 – the company’s first revenue since inception. This fell drastically short of the $1.62 million analysts hoped for.

So, revenues were 95% less than expected. Yikes. Also the company’s cash and cash equivalents declined by $91 million over the previous year, down to $41 million. KiOR’s clock is ticking. They will likely find more investors willing to take a chance on them, but even though I have a couple of friends who work there, I am not optimistic about their long-term chances of competing in the motor fuel arena. As long as natural gas prices remain low, they will probably limp along, but their heavy dependence on cheap natural gas is a risk factor unrecognized by most investors.