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Home » BioRefineries, Business News/Analysis, Federal Regulation, Feedstocks, Field/Orchard/Plantation Crops/Residues, Funding/Financing/Investing, Nebraska

Sweet Sorghum as an Ethanol Feedstock in Western Nebraska – Could It Happen?

Submitted by on January 20, 2018 – 7:00 pmNo Comment

by Richard Perrin, Lilyan Fulginiti, Subir Bairagi, Ismail Dweikat (KRVN)  It has been proposed that non-irrigated sweet sorghum might be grown in western Nebraska as a seasonal substitute for corn grain in corn ethanol plants. In the research summarized here1, we examine the economic feasibility of this possibility, based on the technical data that are currently available about sweet sorghum production.

As we report below, at current nominal prices and technology, the sweet sorghum ethanol pathway is barely a break-even prospect. But if we consider the extra value of sweet sorghum ethanol over corn ethanol due to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), new benefits to farmers ($14/ac) and plants ($0.06/gal) would be sufficient to warrant investing in the pathway, if it were not for the market and political risks associated with the RFS. Alternatively, if expected sweet sorghum yields could be increased by 30% over our estimate of 20t/ac, similar levels of return could be realized, making adoption by some plants likely.

For economic feasibility, the farmer must be expected to earn more per acre than from corn (the most likely alternative to sweet sorghum), and the ethanol plant must expect to earn more when sweet sorghum is the feedstock rather than corn grain.

The pathway might be made viable under some alternative circumstances. Sweet sorghum yields might be increased by new research on the crop under the auspices of a $13.5 million research effort led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln2 to improve sweet sorghum for biofuel, which heretofore has received little research attention.

A second factor that improves the potential viability of the pathway is the possibility that the plant can obtain a premium for sweet sorghum ethanol compared to corn ethanol. This prospect may seem improbable given that the ethanol molecules from the two feedstocks are identical, but it is almost a certainty because of the RFS created by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The RFS mandates that specific levels of various categories of renewable fuels be blended into the transportation fuel supply. The RFS would identify sweet sorghum ethanol as an advanced biofuel, and identifies corn ethanol as a generic renewable fuel.

Because the mandated levels of these fuels differ and their production costs differ, the fuels have different market values that are reflected in different values for the Renewable Identification Numbers ( RINs) associated with the production of each gallon. RINs for corn ethanol are assigned D6 RINs, while RINs for advanced biofuels are labeled D5 RINs. RINs are tradeable, and their market values are regularly reported.

At this point in time, the RFS premium entails considerable risk, and sweet sorghum yield increases are yet to be established, so it seems unlikely that any ethanol plant would initiate the pathway within the next year or two.   READ MORE 

Sweet sorghum is a drought-tolerant feedstock with the potential to produce more ethanol/acre than corn (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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