Northeast brewery to have new life making ethanol


FULTON, N.Y. -- Sometimes Rick O'Shea still hears the beer bottles clanking in the shadows of the old Miller Brewing plant here, where he worked until the place closed more than a decade ago.

Now he is the engineering director of a project aiming to turn the ghostly, 420-acre complex into the Northeast's first ethanol production plant, churning biofuel out of the massive vats that once brewed Miller Lite.

"Every vessel you see is going to be reused," said O'Shea, 50, standing in the darkened plant's west brewhouse before two stainless steel kettles, each large enough to hold 45,000 gallons of beer. "We've got fermentation tanks; we've got cooking vessels - that's what lured the ethanol project here."

With gas costing $3 a gallon in many parts of the country and much of the oil-producing world in turmoil, the lure of homegrown fuel is a powerful one. Gov. George E. Pataki is intent on making the state the vanguard of ethanol production in the Northeast, and the Fulton plant is one of the projects in the region that is closest to fruition.

Certainly, there is a market. New environmental regulations are spurring a rapid rise in demand for ethanol this year as a replacement for methyl tertiary butyl ether, a gasoline additive better known as MTBE that has been linked to groundwater contamination.

But in the United States, ethanol has always been a Midwestern fuel, and one of limited environmental benefit because it is made from corn, which requires considerable resources to grow and harvest.

Now, New York is investing millions of dollars in research on corn-free ethanol. The State University of New York is spearheading that effort, which would produce ethanol using chips from willow trees instead.

"We pull out the things that are normally thrown away by a pulp and paper mill," said Neil Murphy, the president of SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, which is also working with an International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.

The goal is to use the willow chips to make paper in Ticonderoga and then ship a syrupy byproduct to Fulton, where it can be brewed into ethanol, also known as grain alcohol.

Mass production using this approach is largely untested. So the owners of the Fulton plant, a fledgling local company called Northeast Biofuels, hope to start by producing corn-based ethanol at the beginning of 2008, and plan to later experiment with ethanol from wood chips. They formed a partnership with an established Canadian ethanol producer, Permolex, and even received a $3 million loan from the pension funds of two unions that see jobs in the reconstruction of the brewery.

"Ultimately, where is the demand for ethanol going to be?" asked Eric W. Will II, one of the owners of Northeast Biofuels. "It's going to be where the automobiles are, where you need the motor fuels, and that's called the East Coast and the West Coast."

Douglas Brent, the co-chairman of Permolex, said that building plants closer to areas densely populated with cars was "the future of the industry."

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