Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Friday, November 17, 2006

FARMING OUR FUEL

This was the title of a conference sponsored by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. The main subject of the conference was the cellulosic process for making ethanol. The Environmental Initiative looks at sustainable processes and making ethanol from corn is probably not the most sustainable process. Right now, we are making ethanol from corn because it is cheaper to make ethanol from corn. When or if the price of corn gets to the point where it is not competitive other raw products will be used.
Minnesota is enjoying being a leader in the ethanol industry. And we must remember that it is still a relatively young industry. For example, Commissioner of Agriculture for the state of Minnesota, Gene Hugoson said, “within two years, all of our plants will have the capability to derive their fuel from within the plant.” (Presently only one plant has this capability.) He also said that each new plant that comes on line would use less water.
The ultimate goal is to move the industry toward lower carbon utilization. And in the words of Bill Lee of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, “a corn ethanol plant powered by bio-fuel can be almost as good and sustainable and use less carbon.” Right now, most of the ethanol plants are located in the Corn Belt; but when we change to cellulose (which is available in many states); the industry will not be so centralized.
Maurice Hladik of Iogen Corporation based in Ottawa, Canada provided the most information on how to produce ethanol out of cellulose. His company is in the process of building an ethanol plant in southeastern Idaho that will use cellulose as the raw product. They are one year from putting the shovel in the ground and then 18months after that is the expected start date. The company chose this location in Idaho because the land is irrigated using water that melts from mountain snows. The farms are large and they have never had a crop failure. Wheat and barley are the crops raised and the farmers have no use for the straw. The company has farmers contracted and will pay them $15 per ton of straw in the windrow. The land purchased for the plant has water rights with it and access to the aquifer, which is replenished by mountain moisture.
This type of plant is at a disadvantage because it costs more to build. The cost of the final product is estimated to be $1.50 per gallon but they are shooting for $1.00. The first plants on line always have higher costs associated with them. But the process is more efficient and the result is more ethanol from the raw product. The inputs for the plant include water, the use of which is comparable to a plant using corn as the raw product. The plant will produce its own power. The final product is no different than ethanol made from corn. Hladik commented that this process can be used any place there is residue and he said, “Minnesota is the Saudi Arabia of residue.” Gene Hugoson mentioned there is the opportunity for residue from our timber industry to be used in making ethanol. This new process could change the marketplace for ethanol. At the present time, the product must be trucked to areas where demand is high. The next generation of plants could possibly be located closer to large centers of population where it would be used. end

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