Texas Biofuels Movement Building Momentum

As Bush makes groundbreaking revelations about the U.S. being "addicted to foreign oil," Texans may be pleased to know that many of the scientific "breakthroughs" he says will someday break our oil fixation are already in the works here.

While most energy experts agree that a departure from America's auto-dependent lifestyle toward more public transit and human-powered alternatives is necessary both economically and environmentally, a rapid sea change in Americans' auto attachment – be it for individual transport or shipping our food and supplies – is unlikely. So, as President George W. Bush makes groundbreaking revelations about the U.S. being "addicted to foreign oil," and about some of our suppliers having "unstable governments or fundamental differences with the United States," Texans may be pleased to know that many of the scientific "breakthroughs" Bush says will someday break our oil fixation are already in the works here, slowly but surely inching toward the mainstream.

The Road to Renewables Ethanol and Biodiesel Workshop, held in Austin last week, showcased much of the statewide progress in renewable fuels – from the soon-to-be landfill-gas-powered biodiesel plant built by the city of Denton, to a cellulosic ethanol plant under construction in Raymondville that can make a gas alternative from anything that was ever green, including wood chips and grass clippings, to reports that massive fuel retailers like Love's Truckstops are experimenting with large-scale sales of biofuels like Willie Nelson's name-brand biodiesel. What was perhaps most encouraging for Texas' green fuel outlook, however, was the conference's attendance, which according to prior year's attendees, has exploded from a handful of enthusiasts to herds of plant developers, legislative representatives, academics, fleet managers, and even a few farmers – all interested in climbing on a biofuel-powered gravy train.

Along with aspirations for energy independence and better emissions, many of the presentations shared a common goal: a closed economic loop system that produces fuel for local needs, using local resources if possible and creating local jobs – all while keeping cash in the community. That's what Jake Stewart of Biodiesel Industries said his firm had in mind as it developed a 3-million-gallon-per-year capacity biodiesel plant for the city of Denton, which runs on gas belched from an adjacent decommissioned landfill. Stewart called the facility the city's "own renewable oil well," providing fuel to run the city's entire diesel fleet on a 20% biodiesel blend, and creating revenue when the city sells the vast surplus. There are now 11 operational biodiesel plants in Texas.

Local biodiesel distributor Austin Biofuels is putting more of a focus on marketing than production – making biodiesel more widely available to the public is what must happen for biofuels to go mainstream. After a recent deal between biodiesel producers and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality effectively reversed a November measure that outlawed biodiesel/petroleum blends under an emissions rule, Austin Biofuels announced plans to introduce pumps at area Signature convenience store gas stations within four to six months, as well as two new stand-alone public pumps. New testing also shows that contrary to previous opinion, biodiesel may produce less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), a smog-forming emission, than petroleum.

Biodiesel maven Peter Bell said his venture with Willie Nelson in bringing BioWillie biodiesel to the market is aimed at putting some of the 330 family farmers that leave the fields every week in the U.S. back to work growing fuel. On the same token, Houston-based GeoGreen Fuels is opening a 3-million-gallon-per-year biodiesel plant this September in rural Gonzales, Texas, "focused on working to redevelop the local farming base that's died over the years," according to company attorney Cary Jones. GeoGreen CFO David Fisher said his company is experimenting with other crops, such as sunflowers, which he says yield more oil than typically used soy beans. Stewart said biodiesel producers are experimenting with micro algae, capable of more than doubling oil yield using a fraction of the land occupied by crops – and, in some cases, utilizing human or animal waste in the process, as algae actually grows off waste.

Turning to Ethanol, conference presenter Tim Snyder, president of Lubbock-based Agri-Energy Solutions, helped spearhead one of two 100-million-gallon ethanol plants under construction in Hereford, Texas, built by Dallas' White Energy Ltd., which will process corn and grain sorghum (or milo) into fuel. By May of 2007, Snyder said, Texas will have more than 230 million gallons of ethanol in production. The other planned Panhandle-area ethanol plant – built by Panda Group, also of Dallas – is designed to run on cattle manure and cotton gin waste.

New research also exists to counter corn ethanol's long-time reputation of requiring more energy to produce than it creates, though critics still say that the recent corn ethanol push, as seen in General Motors' new "Live Green, Go Yellow" ad blitz, has more to do with industry subsidies than with renewable fuel. Russel Smith of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association faulted government loopholes allowing automakers to skirt fuel-economy standards by producing Flex-Fuel Vehicles, capable of running on ethanol, since the measures never required ethanol use. Historically, little ethanol has been available to the public outside the grainbelt. In fact, San Antonio has Texas' only public ethanol pump. But new techniques like cellulosic ethanol – which uses slight advances in current technology to process materials other than corn, such as discarded wood chips or fast-growing, low maintenance grasses – promise to create a fuel with up to twice the energy yield of corn-based ethanol. BioFuels Energy Corporation claims its 4-million-gallon cellulosic ethanol plant, set to open in six months in Raymondville, Texas, will be the nation's first of its size, and the first to be powered solely by the lignin byproduct of the ethanol production process, basically a charcoal-like substance that is burned as fuel. Development VP Peggy Korth said the facility uses city grass and tree trimmings and that a sister plant in Raymondville manufactures and retails smaller-scale systems.

Encouraged by federal and state incentives, the Texas biofuels industry is as hot as ever. If we really want energy independence, however, the federal government's recent modest funding increases for clean fuels don't go far enough – some of them barely offsetting previous cuts. The first step must be what Bell called the "elephant in the room": fuel efficiency standards that haven't substantially increased since the 1980s. Smith also believes all new vehicles should be flex-fuel-compatible, "creating a platform for fuels to compete." The nation will never break its foreign-oil addiction, however, without making timely and real commitments to renewables progress, both on and off our roads.

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