Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's rural Seventh Congressional District, believes corn ethanol represents the country's most economically viable renewable energy in the next several decades.
"It's not going to be some high-tech gang from Silicon Valley that's going to make this work," Peterson said of next-generation renewable fuels. "You need farmers."
Still, Peterson says that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu "has announced that corn ethanol is dead."
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"The Holy Grail is cellulose," said Ralph Groschen of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
In the world of renewable energy, cellulose means whatever grows naturally in renewable supplies. Theoretically, this is the 50-state solution to American energy independence -- biorefineries that convert anything from sawdust to saw grass into alternatives to gasoline.
The problem, say guys like Kelly Nixon, is turning theory into practice. Nixon runs the Central Minnesota Ethanol Coop in Little Falls. That corn ethanol plant hoped to add a facility that made ethanol from the wood of fast-growing poplar trees.
Peterson says those trees, which now litter the state's countryside, were planted specifically to feed ethanol plants that remain unaffordable and unsustainable.
"We looked at the cost, and it was too expensive without millions from [the federal government]," Nixon said. "I think the little guys are probably out [of the cellulosic conversion business]."
The future for the big guys looks brighter. Mascoma, a biofuel company, bought out another company that would have partnered with the Little Falls ethanol plant on cellulosic conversion. Now, it has a deal with the oil company Valero to produce 40 million gallons of ethanol a year from a wood-driven plant in Michigan.
And, further of cellulosic ethanol:
In Emmetsburg, Iowa, near the Minnesota border, Poet LLC, the world's leading corn ethanol producer, seeks a similar federal guarantee for a private loan. Poet plans to break ground this year on a $200 million attachment to its existing Emmetsburg corn ethanol plant.
The new addition will use corncobs, husks and leaves left over from harvest to make ethanol. Some 450 farmers, including many from Minnesota, are expected to make a second pass over harvested fields with balers and bring the baled waste to the Poet plant for conversion to biofuel, said Jim Sturdevant, who directs the program.
If the program succeeds in Iowa, Poet will take it to other plants including four in Minnesota.
"Then," said Sturdevant, "we'll go to wood waste, paper mills and rice hulls" as an ethanol source.
Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to produce 80 billion gallons of gasoline alternatives per year, Sturdevant said. That's roughly four times what is generally viewed as the maximum output for corn ethanol.