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Iowa Can Lead World In Producing Biofuels

Summit at ISU looks at ways the state can compete in production of renewable energy.

Iowa needs to move now to take advantage of its leadership opportunity in making ethanol from corn to become the world leader in renewable fuels made from other plant materials. That was the message Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy delivered at a "Call To Action Summit" held last week at Iowa State University.

In his opening address Geoffroy explained that ISU invited state leaders, farm organization representatives, government officials and policy experts to discuss how Iowa can meet the competition from other states that are aggressively pursuing research, education and commercialization of biorenewable resources. California, in particular, is aggressively trying to develop its own renewable energy supply and sell the excess production to other states.

Geoffroy said the summit at ISU was timed to be held November 28, after the recent election and ahead of the 2007 Iowa Legislative session, which begins in January. Over 450 people attended the summit, including 20 state legislators.

Opportunity is more than just ethanol

There are new developments in the expansion of the ethanol business every day. "This train is moving very, very fast," notes Geoffroy. "Everyone in Iowa needs to be thinking about making the state a leader in renewable fuels."

Geoffroy pointed out that Iowa is the leading ethanol-producing state and is also first in per capita production of electricity produced by wind turbines. "Iowa has an opportunity to help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil because of Iowa's fertile soil and abundant production of crops and plants that can be used for production of energy," he said.

Using cornstalks, switchgrass and other plant material—all referred to as cellulose materials—our nation can produce enough ethanol to replace 60% of the gasoline in the United States, said Geoffroy, much more than ethanol made from corn grain.

"It's dangerous for Iowa to assume that just because we are the leader in ethanol made from corn grain that we will be the leader in cellulosic ethanol," he added. "The stakes in this race are enormous. This will be world changing and enormously profitable for those who are able to capture the opportunities."

The stakes in this race are tremendous

Following Geoffroy as a speaker on the program, was Robert Brown, director of ISU's office of biorenewable programs. "California wants to be the leader in cellulosic energy production," said Brown. "Make no mistake, California is enacting policies to become the leader in cellulosic energy. Their governor is very, very interested in doing this."

California voters rejected a ballot measure in November aimed at developing biofuels. Proposition 87 would have funded a $4 billion program to reduce oil and gas use by 25% in that state through use of incentives for alternative fuel and energy efficient vehicles.

Another speaker at ISU's November 28 summit was Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding for Monsanto Company. Crosbie, who has an office at the Monsanto facility at Ankeny, lives on a farm west of Des Moines. A native of northwest Iowa, Crosbie received his agronomy degrees from Iowa State University and was on the faculty at ISU a number of years ago.

Need to get handle on environmental effects

Crosbie, in addition to his Monsanto job, serves in a non-paying position as the state of Iowa's chief technology officer. He says ISU needs to look into how much native grasses such as switchgrass or corn stover—parts of the corn plant that don't include the kernel—can be removed from farm fields without doing environmental damage.

"Soil conservationists tell farmers that corn plant residues should be left on fields after harvest to prevent wind and water erosion and to help rebuild the soil's fertility," notes Crosbie. "Right now, it's a guess how much plant material can be removed in an environmentally sound way."

Crosbie says the next farm bill, which Congress will write in 2007, must address how native grasses should be grown and harvested—in an environmentally sound way. He also points out that state and local roads need to be monitored so loaded trucks bringing corn to ethanol plants and hauling ethanol to urban areas don't do serious damage.

Do we have the transportation ability?

"When you talk about increasing corn acreage, keep in mind that corn produces three times as much grain as soybeans per acre," he notes. "If you have 60 bu. beans, you may have 180 or 200 bu. per acre corn. That's a lot of extra grain to handle, haul and store. Then there's the ethanol product to transport. And what about hauling cornstalks or bales of switchgrass? That's a bulky commodity."

"We're talking about lots and lots of trucks," he says. "With the tax breaks that have been granted to ethanol plants by local governments, I don't know if we are going to have the money to fix the infrastructure."

During the question and answer period, people asked about the environmental impact of all-out ethanol production. ISU President Geoffroy asked Matt Liebman, an ISU agronomy professor in the audience, to come up to the podium to comment on the environmental issues raised at the summit.

"People sense a tremendous economic opportunity for Iowa. At the same time we need to be thinking about how to best use soil and water resources in the longer term," said Liebman. "That includes ways to hold down soil erosion and protect water quality while increasing corn production at the same time."

Will state spend more money on research?

Four state senators present at the summit—two Republicans and two Democrats—said there will be bipartisan support in the 2007 legislative session for funding initiatives that will boost Iowa's role as a leader in renewable fuels.

State Senator David Johnson, R-Ocheydan, said other states like Wisconsin are investing in research and Iowa needs to be competitive. "We don't have any choice. We have to look at this seriously," says Johnson.

State Senator Thurman Gaskill, R-Corwith, said he would support increased spending to fund initiatives that will boost Iowa's role as a leader in renewable fuels—if the money is in the state treasury. "We haven't seen the revenue estimates yet, but it appears that state revenues are going to be up," says Gaskill. "I'd like to see some of that money go to fund additional research at ISU."

To view the presentations on ensuring Iowa's leadership in the bioeconomy, you can click on www.iastate.edu/~nscentral/news/06/nov/summitNov28.shtml

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