Around the nation, ethanol's critics have severely scrutinized the biofuels industry's need for water, while criticizing the use of food for fuel. However, the more thoughtful also acknowledge the industry's own recognition that water issues must be resolved through better technology and conservation, while applauding the development of cellulosic ethanol.
Yersterday, the Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin contained news of yet another ethanol project in Minnesota: An ethanol plant in Eyota? Developer applies for permits. The article mentions concerns about the project by local residents, as does a news report on KAAL-TV, Neighbors Concerned about Possible Plant. While odors are one concern, most of the opposition centers around water issues.
[Eyota Township Board Supervisor Jim Schumann] says by looking at the big picture the plant could bring in more economic means for the community, although he's still aware of it's negative impacts.
"People are wondering about water quality,” he says. “That's probably one of the largest one."
Nonetheless, the developers are going ahead and applying for permits.
There are signs that the ethanol industry is growing more cautious. In West Central Minnesota, the Benson-based Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company has put its plans for expansion on hold, the West Central Tribune reports today.
The cooperative told members Thursday that conditions weren't right to green light the project. The paper reports:
In a news release announcing the decision, Tolifson and general manager Bill Lee cited three main concerns. They said the boom in ethanol construction around the country has driven up construction costs to "unfeasible levels.’’ They also expressed concerns about the likelihood for decreased margins in the industry as a wave of new ethanol reaches the markets. They believe that the increased ethanol capacity will enter the market faster than current gasoline markets can absorb.
Tolifson said Friday they are also concerned about what happens after the nation “hits the wall,’’ or produces the renewable fuel capacity sought by states and the federal government. There is no “clearly defined path to significantly higher ethanol volumes beyond the 10 percent blend markets,’’ they stated in the news release.
Tolifson said Friday that the company would like to see the infrastructure of E-85 filling stations in the nation developed to help assure a strong market.
Many in the industry are also waiting for new technologies to emerge for ethanol production, he added. There is a demand for technologies that reduce water needs and make cellulosic ethanol economical to produce.
Many believe the industry is reaching the point where it must move beyond corn as the primary feedstock for ethanol production, he said.
This news mirrors what we have been hearing in farm country about the growing economic risks for investing in ethanol production. Despite the stereotype of whole counties being consumed by corn planting, the farmers we know talk about how more corn doesn't pencil out; what's more, we've been seeing a lot of corn being cut for silage.
Minnesota's congressional delegation and others talk about the need to invest in the research to develop cellulosic ethanol. Walz has requested an earmark for cellulosic research at MSU-Mankato.
Just last week, the Audubon Society's magazine arrived; inside was the article "Grass is Greener," which discusses replacing corn ethanol with cellulostic ethanol drawn from switchgrass, or better yet, the mixed prairie grasses known in ag talk as "Tilman blends." The term is drawn from a state researcher's work:
Help could come from research conducted by the University of Minnesota’s David Tilman and colleagues. They’ve found that if degraded agricultural lands were planted with a diverse mixture of prairie species, including western wheatgrass, big bluestem, and little bluestem; vascular plants such as sundial lupine and rounded-headed bush clover; and forbs such as rigid goldenrod and tall blazing star, the energy yield could exceed that from switchgrass alone by more than 200 percent. “Our research shows that biofuels made from a diverse mix of prairie plants can eliminate about 15 to 25 percent of the global warming problem the world faces,” Tilman says. At the same time, these cultivated prairies would feature greater biodiversity,providing even better habitat for many animals.
Until the breakthroughs come, ethanol industry insiders see the boom cooling, the West Central Tribune reports:
There are definite signs that the rapid expansion in ethanol is slowing down nationwide, according to Aaron Fagen, chief operating officer for Fagen Inc. “We are (seeing it),’’ he said in an interview Friday. “The boom is ending sooner than anyone predicted.’’
Fagen said the company has strong orders for ethanol plant construction through the end of next year, but sees a slowing of demand after that. The company has been anticipating the trend and is focusing its strategies accordingly, he added.
He said the company is researching new ethanol production technologies. It is also concentrating on its core business of constructing industrial plants of all types.
He agreed with Tolifson’s assessment that the production of corn-based ethanol is reaching its plateau. Many in the industry are now waiting for “what comes next,’’ Fagen said.
Photo: illustration from the Aubudon Society's magazine article "Grass is Greener." In June, I flew to Washington for grassroots training by the Audubon Society and lobbied members of Minnesota's congressional delegation on the Senate and House Ag committees. One requests was for increased research monies for "polyculture" cellulosic ethanol--i.e., the Tilman grass blends.