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More Than One Way to Skin the Ethanol Cat

August 27, 2012 - Did you know that a large number of ethanol refineries in this country are owned by corn farmers?  I wonder if the owners are family farmers or agribusiness farmers; there's a big part of me that suspects the latter.  Perhaps you've heard that the President has been asked to order reduced corn ethanol production, as a result of the drought.  The corn is needed for, of all things, food.  More than 150 members of Congress asked the EPA  to relax government rules regarding the percentage of corn used in ethanol manufacture.  This idea surfaced weeks ago, and has still not been acted upon.  Refineries have produced about ten percent less ethanol this year, due to a scarcity of corn coupled with a higher price.  (The Bush II-era law mandates an increased percentage of ethanol in our gasoline every year.)

That hungry people should have to compete with ill-advised government programs runs counter to every basic survival instinct we have.  The Bush program, concocted to help Bush's oil drilling buddies, in that it forestalls Peak Oil to a very small degree, needs rethinking, if not tabling.  Hungry people come first; up until very recently they always had.  Last year, ethanol production used 40 percent of the US corn crop.  How wrong can anything be?  Ethanol needs to be made from non-food substances.  Duh.

Research is taking place in order to address this conundrum, and with substantive results.  In fact, a North Carolina company by the name of Chemtex International has begun construction of an ethanol plant near Cllinton, N.C.  Instead of manufacturing ethanol from corn, however, Chemtex will rely upon other high-energy grass varieties.  They intend to begin production of 20 million gallons a year in 2014.  In so doing, 65 full-time employees will be needed, along with another 250 people needed to grow and deliver the grass, maintain equipment, and other related activities.  According to the USDA, the non-food-based ethanol will help reduce dependence on foreign oil, increase farm income, and create rural jobs.

Hog farmers will, in fact, grow these grasses on up to 30,000 acres of "hog spray fields."  These fields have already been designated to receive hog manure which is mixed with water, resulting in a sprayable slurry.  Now these same fields will produce a new cash crop, especially for use by Chemtex.  Farmers have, up until now, grown coastal bermuda grass.  They will need to switch to miscanthus and switchgrass, if it is to be processed into ethanol.  The USDA has approved $4 million for payment to farmers in 11 southeastern counties, which will be used to defray the cost of switching to the high-energy grasses.

The Chemtex refinery is the ninth to have won USDA support.  This is part of the Obama administration's policy to encourage the manufacture of ethanol with plants other than corn.  The other eight plants, located in Michigan, Oregon, Florida, Nevada, Iowa and New Mexico, base their production on wheat straw, low-value trees, municipal solid waste, and algae.  (Unfortunately, more than 95 percent of ethanol plants in the US currently use corn starch.)  One driver of ethanol demand is the military's continuing efforts to use environmentally- friendly fuels.  The Navy, USDA, and US Energy Dept. are jointly investing $500 million into the production of fuels that can power the country's warships and planes.  While the military's need for fuel is a sad fact, their creation of a stable market for cutting-edge alternatives to gas and oil is a tremendous help in establishing their place in the New Economy.

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