By Don Davis
The future of renewable fuels is more of the same, but different.
Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson reminded those at Farmfest this week that years ago the Minnesota Legislature voted to mandate that gasoline sold in the state contain 10 percent ethanol, a corn-based fuel that has since expanded nationally.
“Now, we are taking it one step further,” the commissioner said.
Corn farmers are looking at increasing the amount of ethanol used in gasoline and using more than just the grain of a corn plant to make ethanol. Soybean farmers hope government officials approve doubling the amount of oil from their plants used in diesel fuel.
Also, Minnesota is mandating that more wind and solar energy be used to produce electricity as part of a continuing move toward renewable energy.
As officials promised more renewable fuels use this week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced it is relaxing ethanol use requirements.
The EPA said that it will slightly lower the amount of corn-based ethanol required to be in gasoline because most gasoline already contains 10 percent ethanol, the federally required level. With Americans using less gasoline, there will not be as much ethanol needed as expected, the EPA reported.
At the same time, the agency cut by more than half the amount of cellulosic ethanol, a fuel made from non-food parts of plants. Refiners were supposed to use 14 million gallons of the advanced ethanol this year, but the government cut that requirement to 6 million gallons because production has not increased as expected.
Those at Farmfest, an annual southwestern Minnesota agriculture show, heard Democratic officials and others sing the praises of renewable fuels, but Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, presented a counterpoint.
“Let’s do it where it touches reality,” Beard urged.
He told of an electric-production plant that uses poultry manure. But when poultry waste no longer was available for farmers to fertilize their fields cheaply, he said, farmers were forced to pay more to buy commercial fertilizer.
Government actions, such as a new state law to boost solar and other renewable power, will cost more, Beard said. He predicted that 100 years from now, fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas will continue to be the prime energy source.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., agreed that oil still will be around in a century, but said government is right in pushing Americans toward more renewable fuels.
“We pay a price when we burn certain fossil fuels,” Franken said, citing air pollution as one. “There is a logical reason for us to go to more renewable fuels.”
Doug Brekke of Great River Energy, which supplies power to 1.7 million Minnesotans through 28 cooperatives, said his organization is using a lot of renewable sources, but there are limits.
“When it is windy, we have plenty of supply,” he said, but it is hard to justify increasing wind dependence because other types of power still are needed when the wind is not blowing.
“This is not the time to experiment” with new energy forms, Brekke added.
Still, farmers benefit from the developments, said Tom Haag, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
The federal Renewal Fuel Standard, which mandates a percentage of power to come from renewable fuels, has produced 300,000 jobs nationwide, Haag said, mostly in rural areas.
“It is helping us in the countryside,” Haag said, including keeping rural economies doing well during the recent recession.
Frederickson and Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said that within a year, the state may move to its next step in renewable fuels: requiring most diesel fuel to contain 10 percent biodiesel. The additive now is mostly made from soybean oil.
State law set down several requirements before the increase is required. The two commissioners said those requirements appear to have been met.
Frederickson said ethanol has met the goals state officials had in mind when they mandated its use: reduce the dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, add rural jobs and help farmers who at the time faced rock-bottom corn prices.
Much of the federal involvement in renewable energy is tied to a farm bill, legislation that is tied up in Congress.
Franken wrote some of the renewable fuels provision in the Senate farm bill, which would involve $900 million of federal money. The House bill does not fund renewables.
“This is very important for Minnesota agriculture, and for rural communities,” Franken said.