Pushing the potential of ethanol

On The Farm

August 07, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

BOB HUTCHISON will hand you a plastic food storage bag full of a golden, hull-less barley grown on his farm and say, "This could lessen our dependence on expensive foreign oil.

"We're not the silver bullet that's going to break our ties to expensive imported oil, not yet anyway," he said. "But the potential is there."

Hutchison farms about 3,000 acres near Cordova in Talbot County. He also is one of the leaders in the state's effort to build an ethanol plant that would convert grain into a gasoline additive or fuel extender.

Those efforts got a big lift last week when Congress passed the nation's first energy bill in more than a decade.

It requires oil refiners to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2012. That would double current production.

Ethanol is a blend most commonly composed of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent alcohol made from grain such as corn, barley or wheat.

"The energy bill represents a big step in our efforts to build a plant in Maryland," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

The association and farmers have been exploring the possibility of having an ethanol plant in Maryland for about five years.

Their efforts gained momentum this year when the General Assembly passed a bill that would have the state subsidize ethanol production.

It contributes 20 cents a gallon in state funds to the first 15 million gallons of the alternative fuel produced from barley, with a maximum payout of $3 million a year.

The subsidy is similar to those provided by other states to the more than 80 ethanol plants operating around the country.

Hoot said the grain association is looking at a site along the Baltimore waterfront for a plant that could be up and running in three years.

She said current plans are for a $60 million to $80 million facility that would produce about 30 million gallons of alcohol from grain each year.

Hutchison said ethanol plants are becoming increasingly efficient, "and the potential is there for them to have a major impact on the amount of imported oil we use in the future."

Despite its potential, ethanol has critics.

Perhaps the most notable is David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor who has been called Enemy No. 1 of the ethanol lobby.

For more than a decade, he has been arguing that the production of ethanol uses more energy that it produces. In other words, he says, it increases the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Others disagree with Pimentel's findings.

The National Corn Growers Association points to 10 studies that show positive results from the production of ethanol.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Washington-based Renewable Fuels Association, said the energy bill "is likely the most profound rural economic stimulus package since the New Deal."

He said the requirement for an increase in ethanol production would make the U.S. the leading producer of and consumer of renewable fuels in the world.

The National Corn Growers Association has scheduled what it calls an "Ethanol Energy Open Forum" to debate the pros and cons of the fuel alternative.

The forum is to be held Aug. 23 at the National Press Club in Washington. It will feature a panel discussion of energy and ethanol.

Participants are to include Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley, who did a study with Pimentel that said turning corn and other crops into fuel uses more energy than the fuel generates.

Two scientists who dispute their findings, Bruce E. Dale of Michigan State University and John Sheehan with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, have been invited to participate.

Motorists need not worry about filling their tanks with ethanol, said Hoot.

A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released this year, concluded that gas mileage and engine performance should remain mostly unchanged by the use of ethanol.

Hutchison called ethanol "a win-win situation."

"It's a win for the country," he said. "It's a win for consumers and the environment, and it's a win for farmers."

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