Biofuel demand creates new opportunities for Southeast growers

Southeast, cotton, peanut and tobacco acreage is expected to continue a downward trend in 2007, with much of that acreage going into corn production.

Though ethanol from corn gets the most attention, the whole arena of biofuel production offers some interesting opportunities for farmers in the Southeast, according to Chuck Sopher, an analyst for C&S Agri-Systems Inc.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the North Carolina Agricultural Consultants Association, Sopher says the demand for alternative fuels has and will create some interesting business partnerships for farmers.

“I’m currently working with Memphis Light, Gas and Water, for example, and they are in great need for an alternative to diesel fuel. They operate a number of stationary generators on diesel fuel that create a big pollution problem. The company is constantly on the cusp of being shut down, and they know going to biodiesel will keep them in business longer,” Sopher says.

The city of Breckenridge, Colo., recently passed legislation requiring busses in the city to operate on biodiesel. Breckenridge, like many ski resort towns banks on clean, fresh air as part of their appeal to attract tourists. Biodiesel burns cleaner than regular diesel and makes the air smell better.

These are only two examples of hundreds or thousands of municipalities and businesses in the U.S. that are looking for alternative sources of fuel. Biogas, methane, ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen fuel cells, biomass, even energy from the sun and wind are all viable options for solving this demand for alternative fuel, Sopher contends.

Biofuels are renewable, reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce trade deficits, are environmentally preferable to fossil fuel and create some economic opportunities for a wide range of professionals. Grain sorghum, cereal grains, cotton, sugar crops, potatoes, hay, conservation crops, spoiled fruit products, mixed seed products — are some of the many things you can make biofuel from, Sopher explains.

Biomass conversion, he says, is one option that has not been developed in the U.S., but offers some cropping and possibly income options for farmers. Biomass can be converted to methane, carbon dioxide, and sulphur compost, which is biogas. Biomass can be converted to biodiesel.

The first step in an ideal biofuel system, Sopher says, are the ethanol and biodiesel plants that are in operation today. If these plants could be taken a few steps further, they could become more profitable and more renewable. For example, he says, “pipe the distillers grain that is a byproduct of ethanol production, take manure and make biofuel from it, send the methane back to the ethanol plant. Along the way, sell some ethanol, sell some beef and make some money,” Sopher says.

“I think in the future we will see municipal waste disposal plants saying ‘hey, you want to bring us some of your cow manure and take away some of our sludge. Sludge is a good source of biofuels to make electricity,” he says.

Waste and byproducts from the growing vegetable industry in the Southeast is potentially a big source of raw material for biofuel production. “I had a young engineer come to me a few years back, when I worked with Del Monte, who wanted to build a facility to compost corn cobs and shucks from a sweet corn plant. His idea was to use the compost material to fertilize highway interchanges,” Sopher says.

The compost system worked great, he explains. The problem is that five percent of the compost generated at only one of eight processing plants was enough to fertilize every highway interchange in Illinois — the amount of these products is enormous, but too often over-looked, he says.

Biodiesel production in the U.S. is increasing dramatically. In 2005, 150 million gallons of biodiesel was produced, with estimates for 300 million gallons in 2007. Soybean oil accounts for over 90 percent of biodiesel. However, yellow and brown grease from waste disposal plants are ideal sources for biodiesel. Other crops, such as rape, mustard seed, canola, peanuts, cottonseed, and sunflowers are also good sources for biodiesel. Lard, chicken fat, and fish oil also are good sources, according to Sopher.

If all the corn grown in the U.S. was grown only for ethanol, about 35 billion gallons would be produced. In the U.S., we use 150 billion gallons a year, so only a small percentage of gasoline consumption can be replaced with corn-based ethanol.

In the future, sweet potato and sweet corn varieties bred for ethanol production will likely take some of the pressure off corn for ethanol. Sweet corn, for example, can now be genetically altered to produce over 40 percent sugar, regular field corn, by comparison is about 2-3 percent. Sweet potato varieties with sugar content over 35 percent, is another option that is very obtainable through genetic selection.

Sopher contends that developing nations, especially China, will want an ever-increasing piece of the world fossil fuel supply. In the future, the U.S. will not be the dominant buyer in the world fossil fuel market. The Chinese, especially, will be able to compete for fossil fuel.

To offset our current demand for fossil fuel, Sopher contends we need to understand we can reduce, not eliminate, our need for fossil fuels. He says energy from the sun, hydrogen fuel cells and other potential sources for alternative fuels may come to fruition long-term, but the immediate concern is what to do now.

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