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Wood-to-ethanol plant set for construction

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Construction of the US's first large-scale, wood-to-ethanol plant is set to begin this year in Upper Peninsula, Michigan.

The $232-million (€175.05 million) biorefinery is to be built on 40 acres in Kinross Charter Township, with completion expected in late 2013.

A company called Mascoma developed the wood-to-ethanol process which combines wood chips with microorganisms, but the project initially struggled financially. However, with an $80 million (€60.39 million) grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the backing of Valero Energy, the project is back on track.

An investment of $132 million (€99.64 million) by Valero, the US's largest independent oil refiner and a leading ethanol producer, confirms it as majority owner. The company will then receive all facility-produced ethanol, planning to sell the majority and blend the rest into its own petrol.

Not without controversy however, the project ignited opposition from the Sierra Club and the 40,000-member Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The Sierra Club and Larry Klein, a Kinross resident, are suing the Energy Department, under the accusation that the department failed to perform adequate environmental review procedures back when the $80 million (€60.39 million) grant was awarded. Furthermore, the Chippewa Tribe is lodging complaints about the impact the logging will have on the area's forests.

Raymond Miller, director of Michigan State University's Forest Biomass Innovation Center, says as ‘we grow between two and three times as much wood each year as we use,’ the biorefinery would not deplete the forest resources.

In addition to environmental concerns, there is also scepticism about how much ethanol the plant would actually be able to produce. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University suggests the project is destined to fail, as too much wood is required to produce a gallon of ethanol.