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Forum focuses on new biofuels initiative

Farmers, researchers and citizens gathered recently at the University of Tennessee Plateau Research and Education Center in Crossville, Tenn., to learn more about the UT Biofuels Initiative (UTBI) and the effects it could have on Tennessee.

The public forum, which was sponsored by the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation and the University of Tennessee, was an opportunity for the public to hear details about the planned construction of a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in east Tennessee and about the $8 million farmer incentive plan that will be put in place to encourage farmers to grow a new energy crop for the state.

“We now have reached the point where energy has become a major national security issue,” said Congressman Lincoln Davis, who spoke at the event.

Davis said “we can no longer depend on oil companies to meet our energy needs and so we’ve got to change the way we develop our energy.”

“We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil,” said Julius Johnson, chief administrative officer of Tennessee Farm Bureau, who welcomed attendees to the forum. Johnson went on to explain that the UTBI, which received $70 million in state funding, is the result of a combined effort between the state government and UT to jump start a new energy economy in the state.

The UTBI is a business and research model that aims to increase the state’s energy independence and revitalize rural farming communities by establishing a locally produced supply of ethanol fuel. The model calls for the construction and operation of a 5-million-gallons-per-year cellulosic ethanol research facility in Vonore, Tenn., about 35 miles south of Knoxville.

To operate at full capacity, the facility will need to be supplied with 170 tons per day of a locally grown energy crop such as switchgrass.

“Tennessee and the rest of the Southeast have a comparative advantage in producing biomass to be used in ethanol production,” said Kelly Tiller, an agricultural economist and director of external operations for the UTBI.

Tiller said the state has the potential to substainably grow more than a million acres of switchgrass, which could supply 10 or more commercial-scale biorefineries and result in 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol produced annually in the state.

Clark Garland, chair of Biofuels Farmer Education Programs for UT Extension, was on hand to talk about the costs of planting switchgrass and about the planned farmer incentive package.

Garland estimated a cost of $220 per acre to plant the switchgrass, with the majority of that cost being the seed.

Garland said that farmers participating in the incentive

program would receive seed, as well as guaranteed payments for the switchgrass.

Also speaking at the forum was Justin van Rooyen, a representative of UT’s Cambridge-based technology partner, Mascoma Corporation. “Tennessee is a gem as far as biofuels production is concerned,” said van Rooyen. He went on to say that Mascoma is developing a new technique for breaking down the switchgrass so that its cellulose and hemicellulose components can be fermented and distilled into ethanol.

This technological breakthrough saves time and money and will eventually allow Mascoma to invest in a commercial-scale plant in Tennessee after the research facility in Vonore is completed.

Plans are under way to break ground on the Vonore facility in December 2007.

Construction is expected to last approximately 18 months, with the first gallons of cellulosic ethanol available by mid 2009.

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