A conversation with. Mike Blouin Director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development
"Rural Iowa, especially the northwest and north central parts of the state, is exploding with growth from renewable fuels in terms of wind and crops. In the process, we are redefining agriculture, creating meaningful hope with real payoffs in rural Iowa."
A. Years ago, we established some focus industries as a result of state research: life sciences with an emphasis on the agricultural side; advanced manufacturing; and information solutions, which includes insurance, financial services, and technology. Everything we pursued at the time was designed to build these three strengths.
Q. What innovations have taken place in the state this year?
A. The growth in renewable fuels is nothing short of phenomenal. Ethanol is high on our list. Currently, 32 plants are either operational or under construction. Because of all of those, we will be producing half of the ethanol in the United States in the next year or so. We are number one in the United States in both ethanol and biodiesel production capacity, with a $5 billion investment. We're also the third-largest producer of wind power. A federal mandate says that within a few years, as a country we should be producing 7 1/2 billion gallons of ethanol per year. One-half of that will come from Iowa. The state is increasing its electric energy generation capacity by over 20 percent as a result of streamlining the regulatory process for building new electric generation facilities in Iowa.
Q. Is this happening in any special area of the state?
A. Rural Iowa, especially the northwest and north central parts of the state, is exploding with growth from renewable fuels in terms of wind and crops. In the process, we are redefining agriculture, creating meaningful hope with real payoffs in rural Iowa. With that comes a ripple effect of related secondary business. Siemens Power Generation selected Fort Madison, Iowa, for its U.S. wind turbine blade manufacturing site that will be established in an existing 224,000-square-foot building complex on nearly 124 acres in Lee County. This $19 million facility is expected to employ an estimated 250 people.
Q. How does this change the industry of agriculture?
A. Research is imperative. Alternative crops besides corn can be used for alternative fuels. Animal feeds are a coproduct of ethanol, so they become a very definite profit center of ethanol plants. Dried distillers grain is a very high-protein animal feed. We are looking for ways to reduce the protein qualities of it to make it appropriate for all animals. At Iowa State University, plant and animal research is on the rise, as well as in the private sector at companies such as Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Research ranges from increased size of the kernels to the number of ears on the stalk, to even a stalk with no corn at all. Research also surrounds prairie grasses for animal feed. They don't have to be replanted, are hearty, reduce soil erosion, and provide a good habitat for wildlife.
Q. What incentives have helped along the way?
A. Since July 2003, the Iowa Values Fund has figured into approximately 400 projects. There has been a tremendous surge in our activities in the past 3 1/2 years. We went from 51 active prospects in the files statewide in January 2003 to over 500 today. Roughly 31 percent of those are startup companies in biorenewable fuels and technology. One of our goals is to see if over seven years, we can produce $150 million in new tax revenues.