Column: A meaningful alternative fuels program

A lot is being said and written about alternative energy these days, with much of the attention focused on ethanol made from U.S. corn. Billions of dollars are being invested in new production facilities, with more on the drawing board.

Everybody from zillionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson to everyday farmers is investing in ethanol plants.

While there’s little doubt ethanol can be a key component in an overall program to reduce this country’s dependence on imported oil — and a potential boon to corn producers — other fuel sources will also need to be developed in order to keep pace with our growing appetite for energy.

Though ethanol from corn has garnered most of the attention, there may be equal or greater potential for cellulosic ethanol derived from biomass and plant wastes. The process has heretofore been much more expensive than producing ethanol from corn/grains, but new techniques are making it more economically feasible.

Cellulosic ethanol can be made from a wide range of biomass, from corn stalks and cereal straw to sawdust and switchgrass, the latter much-ballyhooed by President Bush in announcing his energy program some time back.

A demonstration plant in Canada is already producing cellulosic ethanol, and Celunol Corp. is building a demonstration cellulosic ethanol plant at Jennings, La., along with a 55-million gallon facility to produce ethanol from grain. The world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol facility is supposed to go online in Spain before year’s end, producing more than 50 million gallons per year.

As the technology advances and becomes more efficient, the cost per gallon for cellulosic ethanol is expected to decline sharply and be competitive with grains ethanol.

Some analysts say if all the wastes from U.S. farms were converted to ethanol, it could replace up to 25 percent of the energy needed for transportation. Add to that the increasingly efficient production of ethanol from corn and other grains, along with various forms of biodiesel (which offers more energy/miles per gallon), and this country could replace a large chunk of imported oil and keep those billions of dollars in our own economy instead of supporting unstable and often unfriendly foreign nations.

It has been estimated that full-scale production of biofuels could reduce the oil dependency of the U.S. transportation sector by as much as two-thirds over the next several decades.

And if the U.S. automobile industry would pay more than lip service to boosting the fuel efficiency of its cars and trucks, it might succeed in winning back some of the market share it has lost to Japan and Korea, and save billions of gallons of fuel in the process.

Producing alternate fuels may not be the biggest hurdle, however — there will also have to be a commitment by government to support the development and growth of these industries and the infrastructure needed to insure their widespread utilization.

That may require huge ongoing subsidies. But wouldn’t we rather spend billions on developing and supporting our own home-based biofuels industry than sending those billions to the oil sheiks and crackpot dictators?


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