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Rural Communities Banking on Biofuel

As demand increases for ethanol and other renewable fuels, smaller towns in out-of-the-way locations are counting on biofuel business to heat up their economies.

Feb/Mar 08
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According to Schramke, local farmers are already using Distillery Grain, an ethanol byproduct able to comprise between 30 and 40 percent of cattle's total feed. But, she says, that's just the beginning. "We've already had people looking into CO2 collection for products such as dry ice, and Distillery Grain also has potential for use in the manufacture of plastics and other oil-dependent consumables," she says. "The whole energy efficiency industry is profit driven, so there really is interest from companies who want to be close to those byproducts as raw materials."

For Tyner, however, that scenario is a stretch. Most ethanol plants vent CO2 rather than collect it, he says, and while Distillery Grain is a boon to local livestock farmers, it's real value may lie in bringing more agricultural - not high-tech - industries into locales where ethanol plants reside: "We're more likely to see feed lots locate near ethanol plants because of the byproduct."

Beyond the Cornfield
Corn may not always be king in ethanol production. According to Sandy Hayes of the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lignocellulosic ethanol - derived from a variety of plant sources from fallen leaves to switch grass - is the future of ethanol production. In fact, federal ethanol production regulations stipulate that of the 37 billion gallons of ethanol mandated for production by 2017, 21 billion gallons of it must be produced from lignocellulosic ethanol. As a result, private researchers are on the fast track to extract energy from all manner of plant tissues. To do it, they're investing in communities where they already have a presence.

Richard Baier, director of Nebraska's Office of Economic Development, says he's already seen renewable energy industry opportunities grow communities as alternative energy technology evolves. Nebraska got into the renewable energy business in the 1980s, according to Baier. Currently there are 21 ethanol plants in operation there - including Cargill's $1 billion refinery - and others on the drawing board. Meanwhile, Abenoga Bioenergy Corporation is pumping $40 million into a research and development center at its York, Nebraska, facility to find ways to make ethanol out of plants other than corn.

"The technology is changing all the time," says Baier, "and it takes time to develop the technology to improve the refinery and to develop new uses for byproducts. For example, ethanol is almost becoming a small part of Cargill's operation. They're using byproducts in food additives, sweeteners, and other products." As a result, he says, the potential for industrial diversity where refineries reside is very real.

But there are other spinoff benefits that extend beyond the obvious. "First of all, landing a renewable energy facility shows that communities know how to do big projects," says Baier. "After that, it encourages them to improve their processes." In Nebraska's case, he says, meeting the needs of the renewable energy industry led to streamlining processes through which plant developers obtained the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality clearances. "Basically, we actually reduced waste in local government," he says. "That speaks to site selectors."

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