Published on 08/14/08

Bioenergy buffs tout industry at Georgia conference

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

With abundant biomass, cutting-edge research and a strong agricultural base, Georgia is becoming a U.S. alternative fuel leader, said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue in Tifton, Ga., Aug. 12.

The state must continue to find better ways to grow, convert and use alternative energy sources, he told the 400 bioenergy experts, industry representatives, businessmen and enthusiasts gathered at the third annual Southeast Bioenergy Conference at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center.

“If you will do anything in your own hearts today, and I won’t give an altar call, but if you all will promise that this won’t be a fad and that you will maintain passion and interest about this, this is the way solutions come about,” Perdue said. “It’s way too important just to be cool about this.”

Forbes magazine recently ranked the state No. 3 in the U.S. for future alternative energy production. Reasons, he said, were entrepreneurial-friendly policies, recent legislation to reduce taxes on biosciences energy companies and an executive order to expedite environmental permits for biofuel plants in the state.

Over the past three years, he said, $700 million was invested in Georgia bioenergy projects.

The three-day conference drew 60 national and international bioenergy experts along with several state and federal legislators to talk about how the Southeast can grow its alternative energy policy and industry.

Seeking new energy sources is crucial for the environment, economy and national security, said Gale Buchanan, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary and a headline speaker.

He placed the current energy crisis in a historical perspective. During the 1970s oil embargo, the U.S. got only 28 percent of its oil from other countries. Today, the U.S. gets 60 percent of its oil from foreign countries.

Oil-producing countries in the ‘70s were working at 65 percent their capacities, he said. Today, the capacity is 98 percent. “For several years, we’ve been using two barrels of oil for every new barrel of oil we find,” he said.

Right now, the U.S. is riding an ethanol wave. The alternative fuel is made primarily from corn in the U.S. Corn prices have soared to record prices based largely on speculation and ethanol demand.

The U.S. has 130 ethanol-producing plants working today, Buchanan said, with 77 on the drawing boards. The U.S. produced 175 million gallons of ethanol in 1980. It produced 9 billion gallons last year.

In the next few months, ethanol will account for 10 percent of the total U.S. fuel supply, said Ron Fagen, who heads the country’s largest ethanol plant construction company. He added that a normal vehicle can run on a gasoline blend of up to 30 percent ethanol without losing any gas mileage.

The U.S., particularly in Washington, is now in a ‘biofrenzy,’ said Harry Baumes, associate director of the USDA Office of Energy Policy and New Uses.

But some, he said, blame the U.S. ethanol industry’s hunger for corn for higher consumer food prices today, or even food shortages.

Even though almost a quarter of the record 13.1 billion bushels of corn produced last year in the U.S. went to ethanol production, he said factors such as weather, the high price of other commodities, export restrictions in other countries and increased demand for more protein-filled diets in other countries for driving food prices high.

Corn ethanol uses less energy to make and releases less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, said May Wu, a researcher with the Argonne National Laboratory. While cellulosic ethanol, which is made from woody shrubs and grasses, is more efficient, the technology to make cellulosic ethanol is not as advanced as that for corn. But it will be soon.

The U.S. now spends $1.5 billion to $2 billion on gasoline every day, Buchanan said. One of the most important things consumers can do now is to decrease their consumption. He told participants to slow down.

“They say for every five miles per hour you drive over 60 miles per hour it’s like paying an additional 30 cents per gallon for gasoline,” Buchanan said.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.