Oranges for Oil

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2007

I'm sure you know that sweet, burned aroma wafting through Bradenton and northern Sarasota. That's the smell of Tropicana blowing dollars through the smokestack.

Let me try another image: The world's largest orange juice producer sits on the equivalent of a sizeable oil field, but it's feeding the oil to cows.

I'll explain.

As the developed world feels the pain of rising oil prices and dependency from unstable oil producing nations, we have seen a global rush to biofuels. Central Europe in summer, for instance, is aglow with yellow canola flowers that are used to produce biodiesel. Here in the Americas, ethanol is the rage.

In the United States, ethanol is mainly distilled from corn. In fact, we're already consuming upwards of one-fifth of the U.S. corn crop by way of ethanol fuel or fuel additives-and that's just to feed a little more than 3 percent of our cars and trucks. That percentage keeps rising fast: In 2006, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. assembled 650,000 flex-fuel vehicles that operate on an 85-15 ethanol-gasoline mix. Already, the ethanol boom has given a tremendous jolt to Archer Daniels Midland Corp.'s bottom line and made corn so expensive that Mexicans who depend on tortillas as a three-times-a-day food staple are ready to riot in the streets.

The Sunshine State has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to resurrect its declining agriculture: Ethanol demand is outpacing the world's corn-growing capacities; and, more importantly, making ethanol from corn is inefficient in comparison to making ethanol from Florida crops such as sugar cane and-believe it or not-citrus waste.

"This opportunity exists only if Florida acts quickly and aggressively," Enterprise Florida, the public-private business booster, urged in a 2006 white paper about ethanol production. "The timing is right and the benefits, in terms of biotechnology-based economic diversification, job creation across several sectors and fuel source diversification, are high."

So why isn't it happening? The Enterprise Florida white paper didn't bother to mention the Sunshine State's dirty little ethanol secret: Big Sugar, at home in the sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee, doesn't want any of it. There is no sugar cane ethanol production whatsoever in Florida, and there won't be, as long as Washington leaves its sugar import quota and domestic subsidy scheme intact-and unless the oil price gets another major hike. Pampered by Washington's protectionism, the Fanjul brothers at Flo-Sun Inc. and the folks at U.S. Sugar Corp. are happy with the status quo. They aren't taking advantage of the big opportunity ethanol represents for Florida, simply because it isn't an opportunity for them.

"We looked into [ethanol production]," says a U.S. Sugar spokeswoman. "But the economics are not there. Gas prices are falling, and the conditions aren't right. We'll keep a close eye on it."

Unfortunately for the state, as long as sugar companies make more profits off sugar, they'll continue to waste their bagasse (sugar residue) in boilers to produce electricity for their mills.

Compare this relaxed attitude with the ethanol hyperactivity among sugar producers south of our border. Brazilian and Colombian sugar mill owners are exposed to a quick-shifting world sugar price that plummeted to an all-time low of 8 cents a pound just half a decade ago. For three decades, sugar producers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have invested billions of dollars in industrial-scale ethanol production. Now that world markets are clamoring for the stuff, the sugar price has hit an all-time high, and producers are making a killing.

Actually, the Cuban government could soon invite Alfie and Pepe Fanjul-major contributors to the anti-Castro cause-to tour spanking-new ethanol distilleries on the island. Cuba is updating three of its 11 existing distilleries and plans to build seven new ones, boosting ethanol production capacity threefold to 130 million-plus gallons by 2010. Some of this is done with an eye towards future exports to the United States.

And then there is citrus. As I said above, we often enjoy the aroma of heat-dried orange peels and seeds, which are a byproduct of Tropicana's cattle feed production (some 2.3 billion pounds a year). This side business made sense a decade ago, but in the age of ethanol rage, it's a joke. The cattle feed, most of which is exported to Europe, is subject to price swings, and it recently sold at $20 to $35 below production cost per ton.

Whatever Tropicana decides to do is crucial for ethanol production in Florida because the company buys close to one-third of Florida's citrus crop. Tropicana's waste could translate into an estimated 15 million gallons of ethanol per year. But so far, the PepsiCo subsidiary keeps its cards tight to the chest. And so do Florida's other two large citrus processors, Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid and grower co-op Florida's Natural.

"Using citrus peels for the production of ethanol is among the potential opportunities we are currently exploring," a noncommittal Tropicana spokesman in Chicago wrote in an e-mail, the only response to several inquiries from Outside In. "When we have more to share, you'll be among the first to know."

Corporate lack of enthusiasm wouldn't come as a surprise. Assuming a $2-per-gallon price for ethanol, this side business would "only" generate revenues in the $30 million range for Tropicana, with a growing but as of yet undetermined profit margin-spare change for PepsiCo. More importantly, PepsiCo investors and analysts aren't exactly clamoring to move the soda and snack giant into the fuel business.

My guess is, in the brave new world of corporate outsourcing, it will take an outside company to convince the PepsiCo dinosaur to jump through this hoop.

To be sure, a handful of Florida entrepreneurs and investors are waking up to the potential profits to be made. U.S. EnviroFuels LLC, a Tampa-based startup founded two years ago by a former Monsanto executive, announced in December that it would build a 40-million-gallon ethanol distillery at the Port of Tampa. (In December, EnviroFuels canceled plans to build that plant at Port Manatee, barely 10 miles from Tropicana's largest OJ processing plant.) But because there are only limited amounts of bagasse and citrus waste available in Florida, the refinery will initially use corn imported from the Midwest. Eventually, EnviroFuels would like to partially feed its refinery with locally grown grains and waste, maybe some bagasse and citrus peels.

At this point, however, government is the main driving force in the ethanol revolution. A handful of U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers in Winter Haven are working to develop cost-effective ways of converting citrus waste into ethanol. In 2006, the USDA researchers began to cooperate with Delray Beach-based Renewable Spirits, LLC, building a 10,000-gallon pilot plant in Bartow. The state of Florida last year launched a research grant program, and Enterprise Florida published a study on the issue urging for more action.

Florida's new governor, Charlie Crist, is an outspoken ethanol supporter. But in addition to explaining to Florida voters how much sense ethanol production makes, the governor should grab the phone, call the CEOs of U.S. Sugar, Flo-Sun, Tropicana, Minute Maid and Florida's Natural Growers, and tell them in no uncertain terms to get moving. 

Filed under
Show Comments