Minnesota Producers Receive $748k to Develop Next Generation of Biofuels

(By Sharon Rolenc, published by Public News Service – MN, full story at http://www.publicnewsservice.org/index.php?/content/article/18043-1)

ST. PAUL, Minn. – U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn) has announced that seven Minnesota biofuel producers will receive nearly $748,000 to expand advanced biofuel production. Franken says the funding will help create jobs, reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and take the country into the next generation of biofuels. He sees Minnesota’s leadership with corn ethanol as a great transition point.

“It’s good for Minnesota, it’s good for corn producers, it’s good for our balance of trade on fuel. There are all kinds of good reasons for corn ethanol, but we’re trying to transition to cellulosic and other, more advanced, biofuels. That’s what this funding is about.”

The bulk of the funding will go to the Minnesota Soybean Processors, Cargill and Corn Plus. Smaller grant recipients include FUMPA Biofuels, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, West River Dairy and Riverview. Authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, the funds will be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels….

“Minnesota has been a leader in biofuels. If anyone is going to take us into the next generation of biofuels, I think it’s going to be Minnesotans. Hopefully, this funding will help speed that.”

Our Take:
Yes Minnesotans are going to lead the way in renewable energy innovation. For instance, late in 2010 a company called GEVO purchased Minnesota Agri-Energy ethanol plant in order to retrofit it to produce biobutanol fuel from various crops. But notice also that CornPlus, a corn ethanol production company, is receiving $128,658.66 of these funds, which comes from the USDA bioenergy program. Ethanol from grain is a product that is seeing continuous improvement–higher efficiency, lower carbon intensity, lower environmental impact.

But an even bigger innovation starting here in Minnesota is a whole new way to think about fuel and fuel sources. Part of what is broken in the US energy market is the lack of choice and lack of diversity among motor fuels. Depending on a single source for energy–oil–is at the heart of the commodities roller coaster ride that derailed the world economy in 2008.  For the vast majority of Americans, gasoline and diesel fuel remain the only choices. This has to change. The world economy cannot afford to remain a hostage to any one commodity.

The visionary Minnesota farmers who began the modern corn ethanol fuel industry wanted to provide consumers another choice. It started with ten percent blends of grain ethanol into gasoline. In the early 2000s, flexible fuel technology made it possible to fuel for specially equipped vehicles up with 85 percent corn-based ethanol. And now blender pumps allow the consumer to fuel those flexible fuel vehicles with blends from E10 to E85 and a number of levels in between. Millions of these flexible fuel vehicles are on the road today and America’s motor companies have committed to increasing FFV production.

Senator Franken’s rhetoric, while it supports innovations in renewable energy, comes out of the old mentality that the transportation energy market must have one fuel. The idea that cellulose-based biofuels need to replace grain-based biofuels is a misnomer. Perhaps it is pandering to those who believe that grain-based ethanol at any level A) takes food from the mouths of people or animals, and/or B) is an environmentally unsustainable product.

This is smoke and mirrors coming directly from Big Oil and major food processors who don’t want to give up marketshare or pay farmers a fair price for their crops. They liked the old system under which the government had to make up the gap between what it cost to put a crop in the ground and harvest it, and the price that commodity markets would pay.

By linking crop production to energy production, and by maintaining a strong market of grain for energy, farmers now produce the same amount of grain for food as they have in the past, while putting a growing amount of grain into energy. The difference is that, now, farming is profitable.

One fact hidden in plain sight that goes directly to the question of ethanol and food, is that a high protein feed product that represents a full third of the volume of the raw grain, is a highly sought after co-product of the ethanol industry.

Meanwhile, the grain ethanol industry has not simply adapted time-old alcohol fermentation–every day the corn ethanol industry develops innovations that allow them to get more ethanol from a bushel of corn, and to do so with fewer inputs of fossil energy sources like natural gas, per gallon of ethanol produced.

Put it all together and corn ethanol deserves an ongoing place in an energy market. Current US law provides for a 15 billion gallon corn ethanol industry. As time goes on and farmers show they can continue the trend of the past three decades of growing more corn on fewer acres with fewer inputs, lawmakers may recognize that an even bigger corn ethanol industry is sustainable.

Our vision is a domestic energy industry that offers consumers a spectrum of choices, allowing them to decide based on economics, performance (if you use E15, you are using the fuel just adopted by NASCAR, and if you use E85, you’re getting close to what Indy racers have used for years–E100), the desire to use a domestically produced energy source that doesn’t fund terrorism or fill the coffers of rogue nations, or your desire to move to a fuel with clean air, and other environmental benefits. (You’ll never have a Deep Horizon gusher that spills hundreds of millions of gallons of ethanol in the middle of the ocean or anywhere else).

We sympathize with the Senator’s predicament of conveying the nuances of renewable energy within the strictures of soundbite-driven media. But don’t be fooled. Corn ethanol is here to stay, and that’s a good thing for everyone.

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