Biofuels Barnstorming

USDA stages events at multiple locations
By Holly Jessen | May 12, 2011

From April 13-20, USDA officials visited the sites of a cellulosic ethanol plant under construction, an algae demonstration co-located with an ethanol plant, a biodiesel plant, an agricultural cooperative that supplies ethanol and a university conducting bioenergy research. And that’s not all—more events highlighting renewable energy projects were expected through May.

The goal was to express support for the biofuels industry, says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who attended three of the five events. “There are tremendous opportunities here,” he says. “The last thing anybody should be doing is cutting the legs out from under this industry at a time when oil prices are unstable.”

Poet LLC CEO Jeff Broin was at the April 19 roundtable discussion with Vilsack, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others. “Any time we get the opportunity to discuss the biofuels industry with government leaders, it’s a positive,” he tells EPM. “I felt like Secretary Vilsack and Administrator Jackson were impressed with how technology has helped the ethanol and biodiesel industries evolve. That was a message that they thought the public needs to hear more often.” High gas prices are prompting a feeling of urgency to speed the development of alternatives, he says. Though that’s a positive for the ethanol industry, it’s a challenge as well. “We’ve got to continue moving toward a free and open market, and staying engaged with USDA and EPA is important.”

Also at the roundtable was Rick Schwark, president and CEO of Absolute Energy LLC, a 115 MMgy ethanol plant near Saint Ansgar, Iowa. He also got a sense that Jackson understood the increasing efficiency of ethanol production during the last 20 years. “Ethanol and biofuels are not a mature, stagnant industry,” he says. “We are making process improvements continually.” He calls Vilsack one of ethanol’s strongest advocates in Washington, who understands its value to rural America as well as supply and demand fundamentals—that corn prices are high because of weather events, not ethanol production—and that without ethanol, the U.S. would still be spending large amounts to subsidize corn. “Vilsack has a firm grasp of the facts surrounding ethanol,” he says.

Chris Chung, CEO of the Missouri Partnership working to attract and facilitate new business investment, was also pleased with the attention paid to biofuels projects. On April 13, USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Judith Canales visited the construction site of the ICM Inc. cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in St. Joseph, Mo. “As home to one of only 12 pilot-stage biomass projects supported by the Department of Energy, it is not surprising that ICM is garnering the attention of the USDA,” he says.  —Holly Jessen