Putting idle acres to work

July 23, 2008

South Florida cellular-tech entrepreneur Howard Melamed figures it could take the state 30 years to turn the U.S. Sugar land it's buying into a restored Everglades.

So he's making an offer he believes could help ease the nation's energy crisis.

Melamed, chief executive officer of Coral Springs-based CellAntenna Corp., wants to lease the 187,000 acres of land the South Florida Water Management District is buying as part of a $1.75 billion buyout of Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corp. and use the sugar cane for ethanol production. He's willing to pay $120 million a year.

"This is a great investment opportunity and a great opportunity to get involved in ethanol production," said Melamed, who calculates production would be about 120 million gallons a year.

"It's a great idea. I think it will work," Melamed said. "Brazil is way ahead of us. It would allow farmers to become the oil barons of the world." Melamed said he contacted Gov. Charlie Crist's office with his idea two weeks ago but hasn't had a response.

Sterling Ivey, Crist's press secretary, said by e-mail Tuesday the state would take a look at Melamed's plan.

"All good options for this land are on the table and we will consider the proposals accordingly," Ivey said.

Melamed's idea is the latest to be floated about how to get ethanol production going in Florida.

To date, the state has no plants producing the alternative fuel, but at least 11 are in the works.

Don Markley, chief operating officer of Fort Lauderdale-based Southeast Renewable Fuels, said Wednesday the company plans to build a 20 million-gallon-per-year ethanol refinery on 60 acres owned by the Londono family 15 miles south of Clewiston. The company plans at least three ethanol plants in areas around Lake Okeechobee, using locally grown sweet sorghum as the feedstock.

Markley said the first plant would employ 47 people and represents a capital investment of $75 million.

"We will begin permitting in the near future and would hope to break ground by this time next year, assuming all permits are approved," he said.

And as early as next month, ground could be broken for a University of Florida research ethanol plant at Florida Crystals' Okeelanta mill and refinery south of South Bay, said Gaston Cantens, spokesman for the West Palm Beach-based sugar producer.

Lonnie Ingram, a University of Florida microbiologist who has spent more than 20 years on scientific work that uses E. coli bacteria to convert plant waste into ethanol, said the facility is expected to take a year to construct.

Florida's ethanol industry is slower to start than in other parts of the country because next-generation technologies and nontraditional feedstocks are planned, said Michael Ohlsen, a staff member in the new Florida Energy and Climate Commission within the governor's office.

"Until the first one or two plants go in, there will be hurdles to overcome," he said.