By Travis Dickerson
Aside from having a good sense of humor, my freshman biology teacher was also a farmer. “Most people don’t know this,” he would say, “but there’s a lot of sex going on in them cornfields.” Getting college students to express an interest in plant reproduction required extreme measures. It didn’t work on me but the girl sitting two rows down sat up and started taking notes.
That is kind of how it is with biofuels. Selling people on the virtues of biofuels is hard to do when it’s so convenient to pull up to a gas station and fill up with regular gasoline. Throw a fuel shortage into the picture and biofuel plants would pop up like fast food franchises.
Reading that North Carolina plans to cut consumption of imported petroleum by 10 percent and replace it with locally grown biofuels might not get much of a response out of the average consumer. Ten percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you figure that a gallon of gas sells for $4 and North Carolina uses about 5.6 billion gallons a year, it factors out to around $2.2 billion a year.
Planning for the Biofuels Center of North Carolina
Talk about robust figures. A lot of attention can be generated for over $2.2 billion. That’s very helpful when you are planning to build an industry from scratch, which is the vision of Steven Burke, president and CEO of The Biofuels Center of North Carolina. The Center wants to develop a self-sustaining biofuels industry sector within the state.
To develop a biofuels industry from scratch many things must take place. “There must be a disciplined, orderly, multi-party approach to put on the ground a new sector of industry,” Burke said. “The goal is to go from zero capacity in 2007 to half a billion gallons of biofuel in 2017 in a way that is sustainable and beneficial to all parties. It will require the backing of farmers, industry leaders, business leaders, landowners, politicians and consumers.”
One of the keys to reaching this goal is the Renewable Fuel Standard. Under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, the RFS program was expanded from 8 billion to 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. That would put North Carolina well ahead of other states in meeting national standards.
Benefits of Biofuel Industry
There are endless potential benefits that the biofuels industry holds. “Never before has a state been better positioned to harness its potential to a realistic need,” Burke said. With 8 million acres of agriculture land and 18 million acres of sustainable forest, North Carolina is perfectly suited to the biofuel industry. Having the research capabilities of the nation’s strongest biotechnology industry is an added incentive. It’s probably no accident that the Biofuels Center is only a short distance away from the region commonly referred to as Tobacco Road. It’s like the perfect storm. All the right ingredients are in place. As Burke put it, “It would be unwise to not consider the potential.”
Environmental Impact of Biofuels
Another benefit of the biofuels industry is the environmental impact. Ethanol is cleaner burning than gasoline, which would result in cleaner air. “Farmers that benefit from the economic potential of biofuels will have added incentive to keep their land rather than selling it to developers,” said Burke. Hopefully this will lead to land being handed down to the next generation and more care being taken to the land.
How to Keep Biofuels Industry Running
The biggest hurdle to overcome in the race for biofuels surprisingly is not technology or science, but instead, the size and scope of the project. “The production and distribution of unprecedented amounts of feedstocks to support the continuous demand of production facilities is a massive undertaking,” said Burke.
“Since the Biofuel Center’s opening in 2007, the center has ruled out corn based ethanol in favor of cellulosic feedstocks,” Burke said. “Importing corn from other states has proven to be an ineffective means of production for North Carolina. It’s no different than buying petroleum from another country and importing it. The clear favorites are energy grasses and wood-base materials.”
“Keeping the production facilities running 24/7 requires a steady supply of raw materials. Getting farmers to plant crops in rotation so that there is a continual harvest is one key to overcoming the challenge,” Burke said. Production facilities strategically located in close proximity to farms is another key.
If figuring out the logistical details of such an enormous operation before it ever materializes sounds like a daunting task just remember, you don’t have to be a conductor to appreciate a symphony, but it definitely is an acquired taste.