By Tom Wilemon
October 19, 2010
The development and adoption of new biofuels is a national security goal as well as an economic objective, said Dallas Tonsager, the under secretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s about getting to that point where you have enough independence in what you create that those who would do you harm no longer have that tool available to them,” Tonsager said in a keynote address to the Biomass South 2010 conference Thursday morning.
The Obama administration has set a national goal to triple the 12 billion gallons of biofuel that the United States currently produces to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The U.S. Navy has also embarked on a mission to use 50-percent alternative fuels in its planes, vehicles and ships within the next 10 years.
The rich farmlands of the Mid-South could play a big part in converting the nation from fossil fuels to biofuels. The Memphis Bioworks Foundation commissioned a study last year that determined the region could generate as much as $8 billion a year in the emerging bioeconomy as petroleum-based products are replaced with plant-based ones.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, spoke about the importance of this emerging industry.
“It is so important because we are the center of the Mid-South where so many rural interests and farm interests come together,” Cohen said. “Bioworks is trying to bring all that together in a fashion that allows the rural economy to be expanded through the works of this urban think tank center that is Bioworks.”
Currently, most alternative fuels come from corn in the form of ethanol. This week, the Obama administration approved increasing the amount of ethanol in fuels from 10 to 15 percent.
But the higher percentage is recommended only for newer vintage vehicles. Service station owners will have to decide which percentage to offer.
Of the 162,000 fueling stations in the U.S., only a few thousand have pumps that allow customers to choose between different percentages of ethanol mixes. The need for better pumps and technologies in cars to accommodate the new types of fuel will become more acute.
“If we don’t give them the opportunity to use a greater blend in their vehicles, you won’t be able to push more fuel through the system,” Tonsager said.
The nation also needs more biorefineries. Most of the existing biorefineries are in the Midwest and Northern Plains. The USDA has projected that another 527 biorefineries are needed, which would be about a $168 billion investment.
These biorefineries would process products such as oil seed crops and woody biomass. The USDA and the Department of Energy have funded a demonstration plant in Georgia that converts woody biomass to fuel that is slated to have an open house in the next couple of weeks.
The 36 billion gallons per year goal for biofuels will not meet all the nation’s energy needs, but it will make the nation less dependent on oil exporters.
The U.S can “start to make the rest of the world anxious about providing us oil instead of seeing it as a tool that can be used against us,” he said.
The two-day conference, which ends Friday, will also look at other products besides biofuels that can be derived from plants. Biomass South, which was last held two years ago in North Carolina, is sponsored by Memphis Bioworks AgBio, the Southern Growth Policies Board and Southeast Agriculture and Forestry Energy Resources Alliance.
Memphis Daily News