GIBSONTON — The empty field off U.S. 41 doesn't look like much. But if all goes as planned, the 100-acre chunk of land between Symmes and Big Bend roads will soon house one of the largest ethanol plants in the country.
Capable of churning out 200 million gallons of renewable fuel each year, in addition to creating about 400 local jobs, county officials say the future Sunshine Way Ethanol plant is a much-needed asset.
"It certainly has the potential to be a very good, very big project," said Jerry Campbell, director of the county's Environmental Protection Commission's air management division. "It's not something we typically see coming in here."
Campbell's office is so supportive of the project that it's working with developers of the Sunshine Way Ethanol plant to expedite the permitting process.
Developers are now in the midst of exploratory grubbing while awaiting those permits and other entitlements.
The land, at 12602 S U.S. 41, will officially transfer from current owner South Bay Corp. to Sunshine Way Ethanol Co. at the end of March, said Sunshine Way contractor John Jones.
Jones, who owns Lakeland-based Construction Tradition Group Inc., said a number of private investors, whom he wouldn't identify, are funding the $300 million project.
Once up and running, the plant will gross an estimated $100 million annually, he said.
Here's how Jones says it'll work:
Twenty-seven farmers in South Florida, many who were hit hard by the recent harsh winter, will switch from growing their usual crops to harvesting corn.
Then a new Sunshine Way Trucking company will bring the corn to Hillsborough County, where it'll be turned to ethanol and sold to fuel vendors across Florida.
To eliminate waste, Sunshine Way will also sell the manufacturing by-products. A substance known as DDGS or distillers dried grains with solubles is used for cattle feed, and carbon dioxide is sold to soda companies for carbonation.
Jones said none of it, not the by-products nor the ethanol itself, will leave the state's borders. He said Sunshine Way is already in talks with Florida fuel producers, who now import almost 2 billion gallons of ethanol from other states.
"The main thing is, we have a very good opportunity, if it's successful, to create a number of jobs — not only for ethanol, but in logistics and for Florida farmers," Jones said. "Thus far, everyone that's involved is very excited."
If it works, Jones said the investors plan to open similar ethanol plants in Jacksonville and South Florida.
"We'll see what happens," he said.
Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Renewable Fuels Association, said the average output for U.S. ethanol plants is around 75 million gallons annually. The biggest plants produce more than 300 million gallons.
Besides a yet-to-open plant in Vero Beach that will convert garbage to ethanol, Hartwig hadn't heard of any other ethanol plants planned for Florida. He said there are 204 corn-to-ethanol plants now open across the country.
"You know, when the price of oil spikes like it is today, that refocuses attention on renewable fuels like ethanol," Hartwig said.
The Southeast region of the United States is a big consumer of gasoline, he added, "so this plant certainly would be able to tap into a strong market and fairly strong demand locally for fuel."
Hartwig was quick to note, however, that ethanol producers have now saturated the current market for the most popular fuel — a blended version with 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a 15 percent ethanol blend for vehicles made after 2001, but it'll take awhile for gasoline makers to catch up, Hartwig said. A higher ethanol concentration only works in flex-fuel vehicles.
Still, new federal rules call for an increased amount of renewable fuels to be used through 2022, so Hartwig expects the demand to go up.
And in the meantime, "these plants are safe, they're good neighbors, and you know, all of a sudden you have … an asset that's paying taxes and contributing to the economy in a whole different bunch of ways," he said.
"I think for the state of Florida, it'll be fantastic."
So what can nearby residents expect?
Jones said construction will probably begin in about a month and hopefully wrap up next spring.
While he said traditional ethanol plants look like "moonshine stills," this one will be enclosed in unremarkable metal buildings. Inside, it'll smell like baking bread, he said.
Plus something else.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or email@example.com.