Renewable fuels sector aims for energy policy

What this country needs is not, as Woodrow Wilson's Vice President Thomas Marshall suggested, “a good 5-cent cigar,” but a real energy policy that includes a strong commitment to renewable fuels, according to Jeff Dahlberg, research director, National Sorghum Producers, Lubbock, Texas.

Dahlberg discussed energy and its effects on the future of agriculture with FARM PRESS during the North American Grain Congress, a joint meeting of NGSP and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) held recently in San Antonio, Texas.

“Energy is one of the few domestic markets that offers a positive for farmers,” Dahlberg said. “Currently, we have two markets for agricultural products: cheap food for domestic use and cheap food for export.”

He said that situation puts increasing pressure on farmers to boost yields, which leads to more over-production and even lower prices. “Energy is a serious issue,” he said. “Demand outside the United States, especially in China and India, has increased. Those two countries are taking a big chunk of energy and it will be a long time before we see cheap crude oil prices again. And oil is a limited resource.”

He said oil reserves likely will not fail anytime soon, but insists that the sooner governments and researchers acknowledge that oil is a finite commodity, the sooner they begin exploring alternatives seriously.

“We consume 400 million gallons of gasoline in this country a day,” he said. “That's 2 to 4 gallons per person every day. Replacing that much energy requires a lot of alternative fuels. Fortunately, we're increasing production of ethanol.”

But supplying even a fraction of what's needed to make a dent in petroleum use will require more than grain-based ethanol.

“Plants will use other vegetative matter,” he said. “Bio-mass will play a big role but we still have concerns about enzymes to break down cellulose. Sorghum varieties with high sugar content also hold promise. Sweet sorghums, sugar cane, and sugar beets will be options.”

Emphasizing renewable fuels also stimulates rural economies, Dahlberg said. “Energy plants bring a big economic boom.”

He said the plant would require from 20 to 40 high-paid employees. And the infrastructure to move grain and other materials into the plant and energy out employs even more.

The textile industry, as it used to be, offers a good example of how an energy plant benefits communities. The plant employs local workers and uses local crops for part of their raw material. A healthier economic base improves schools, infrastructure and quality of life.

“Energy is now an agricultural product,” he said. “That's a real positive for the industry, a movement forward.”

He said promoting energy production also elevates farmers in the public's eye. “We now have a cheap food policy and the general public does not understand where (groceries) come from. And many assume that farmers make tons of money.”

He said surveys indicate most consumers would support farms as an energy source.

Renewable fuels also should be part of the country's security plan. “If we can keep fuel prices level and stop our dependence on foreign oil, we've helped,” he said. “Farm equals fuel. That's a positive equation. Even if the price of grain does not go up a lot, this provides a positive for the country. We depend less on foreign oil and we can export to developing countries.”

Dahlberg recommended governments mandate official vehicles use bio-diesel or other renewable fuel.

He said President Bush's goals for renewable fuel use will “be difficult to get to by 2025. We have to build pipelines to move ethanol.” Currently ethanol is moved by truck.

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