jueves, octubre 16, 2008

[BIOENERGY] Ethanol passes key transportation test

Houston pipeline operator Kinder Morgan Energy Partners signaled progress Wednesday in addressing a key hurdle to widespread distribution of renewable fuels in the U.S. The company said it completed a test in Florida that moved ethanol safely through an existing gasoline pipeline and is performing similar tests with biodiesel fuel blends.

The tests could be important for a U.S. biofuels industry that now transports fuel only by truck, rail car and barge, and will require more efficient transportation options as it grows.

Kinder Morgan and other pipeline companies are still in the early stages of testing. Huge investments will be needed if the companies decide to ready more assets to handle biofuels, and upgrades could take years.

Yet Kinder Morgan's moves suggest a willingness to explore the idea further.

Pipeline operators have been reluctant to run ethanol in pipelines because it absorbs debris, rust and water, can damage components and taint petroleum fuels that share the lines. They have balked at biodiesel because of uneven quality and a residue that can damage jet fuel if it follows biodiesel through a pipeline.

Kinder Morgan spent 18 months on the ethanol pipeline test in Florida and made more than $10 million in upgrades to a segment that connects Tampa and Orlando, said Jim Lelio, director of business development and national biofuels manager for the pipeline firm.

The segment was ideal for the study because it was fairly new, situated on flat land and carried only one product, gasoline, Lelio said. But upgrading it wasn't simple.

First, the company had to replace a number of parts, including seals, gaskets and other components. Then, it cleaned the pipeline with a device called a "pig" that ran through the line and scoured the interior with brushes and chemicals.

Finally, Kinder Morgan ran a 5,000-barrel batch of ethanol through the pipeline earlier this month with good results, Lelio said.

The company is still modifying the pipeline but expects to be transporting ethanol for customers by mid-November.

Lelio said the company will consider upgrades to other pipelines in its portfolio, depending upon customer demand and the ability to maintain the operational integrity of the pipelines.

New energy legislation calls for blending 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year into the nation's fuel supply by 2022, five times the current level, to help reduce dependence on oil.

While most of that will be ethanol, the law also requires blending of 500 million gallons of biodiesel a year by 2009.

Biodiesel is chiefly made from vegetable oil in the United States and is often blended at low levels with petroleum diesel. U.S. ethanol, usually made from corn, typically is blended with gasoline to stretch fuel supplies and help curb tailpipe emissions in cities with the dirtiest air, including Houston.

Critics have charged that production of biofuels has strained food supplies globally, hurt the environment and received excessive government subsidies.

But the ethanol industry's leading trade group, the Renewable Fuels Association, praised Kinder Morgan on Wednesday for demonstrating that "any technical challenges that may exist with the transport of ethanol through pipelines can be overcome."

As the ethanol industry grows, it may need to ship ethanol via pipelines, group spokesman Matt Hartwig said, and "Kinder Morgan's success goes a long way in proving that can be done."

Elsewhere, Kinder Morgan is testing biodiesel transportation in its Plantation pipeline from Collins, Miss., to Spartanburg, S.C. It is preparing for tests in Oregon, where a new biodiesel mandate will take effect soon.

Steve Howell, technical director for the National Biodiesel Board, an industry trade group, said it is no coincidence the tests were announced after national fuel standards were released this month for certain biodiesel blends.

"That was one of the key factors in a lot of the pipeline companies' reluctance before," he said.

While there are other technical factors to work out, he said, his group is assisting with other upcoming tests.

"We don't see it as necessary to be viable," Howell said of transporting biodiesel by pipeline. "But we think we can be more viable with it."

Source: Houston Chronicle| By BRETT CLANTON

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