Renewable energy, ag ties remain close

REDWOOD FALLS – A Farmfest panel on the future of U.S. renewable energy policy had little to offer Tuesday in terms of new ideas, but noted how far the industry has come in the past 20 years.

The panel was headed by U.S. Sen Al Franken, D-Minn., a member of the Senate Energy Committee. Also on the panel was Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Fredrickson, and others representing different aspects of the energy sector.

Franken told the audience that while he is not on the agriculture committee, he was involved in writing the energy title in the farm bill passed by the Senate this year.

The three biggest parts of the energy portion of the bill are the Rural Energy for America Program; renewable energy projects; and financial assistance for biomass crops.

Fredrickson reminded the crowd of the early years of ethanol, after a 10 percent ethanol mandate was instituted.

“Some people thought it would be outrageous,” he said. “Today, we have a capacity of 1 billion gallons in Minnesota. It tooks some courage. … Today we have three spigots coming out of the grain bin: ethanol, livestock feed and food.”

The panel was not united in its praise for the push to increase renewable fuels.

Mike Beard, a state representative on the Minnesota House energy policy committee, said hydrocarbons are the lynchpin that makes everything works.

“We can afford to look at renewable energy because we have base load power,” he said. “Before we fell into hydrocarbons, life was cold, and dark and short. Imagine life without heat and power.”

Beard did not seem to suggest that renewable energy is without merit, but it is not where the government should be investing its dollars.

“You can see how we have to be based in reality a little bit,” he said, giving an example of the amount of switchgrass needed to create power. “At the end of the day, do we want to be devoting 13,000 acres of switchgrass for 6 megawatts of energy?”

Beard continued by asking the audience if it wanted to be beholden to the government for funds.

“Be very careful when asking us to incentivize your market,” he said. “The government giveth; the government taketh away.”

Despite Beard’s caution to farmers interested in diversifying into wind, solar or biomass, the other panelists talked about the finite nature of oil, and how, until 200 years ago, all energy was renewable.

Doug Bervan, vice president of corporate affairs with POET, noted that ethanol was once subsidized by the government, but no longer is.

“I am very happy I am in an industry that makes perfect sense,” he said. “Ethanol makes sense because it is less expensive than gas and higher octane than gas. I can go on and on because I love to tell the ethanol story.”

Biodiesel is the next rising star in the renewables field, with discussion about changing the fuel-blend requirement from B5 to B10, or 10 percent of the total volume.

The panel did seem to agree that a farm bill must be passed to give farmers certainty on renewable fuels and other issues.

“One out of five jobs is tied to agriculture,” Franken said. “Farmers don’t just want a farm bill, you need a farm bill. … Other countries are investing heavily in renewables, and that is a race we don’t want to lose.”