April 2006
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Alabama Farmers Study Cutting Edge Bioenergy Technologies

  Wayne Keith of Springville in St. Clair County brought his woodchip-burning truck to Shorter to show folks how it can run without gasoline. He was a big hit.
by Alvin Benn

Alabama’s gold mines played out years ago, but a lot of money just might be made off of available natural assets that include trees, grass and poultry waste.

The name of the game in America today isn’t shiny yellow pellets dug out of mines—it involves a wide variety of natural resources and Alabama could be in position to become a national leader in several categories.

The umbrella designation—bioenergy—was the focus of a Feb. 23, 2006, field conference at Auburn University’s E.V. Smith Research Center. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and Acting Assistant U.S. Secretary of Energy Douglas Faulkner joined Ron Sparks, Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, and other state leaders for the event.

It was arranged because of America’s growing concern over dependency on foreign fuel suppliers and President Bush’s call for more research into using what the U.S. has to become more independent.

The conference included live demonstrations of "cutting edge" technology on the production of switchgrass, ethanol and other biomass materials including wood chips and broiler litter.

Before the large group went into the field to watch the demonstrations, a program was held under a tent where they were addressed by Sessions, Auburn’s interim president, Ed Richardson, and Faulkner, who is directing the federal government’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Richardson took a second to survey his surroundings and then told the crowd that "we may be out in the middle of a field in a tent and the ground may be wet, but I anticipate what we’re about to do will change the direction of agriculture at Auburn University."

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, right, and Auburn University Interim President Ed Richardson stand in a field of switchgrass during an alternate fuel programin Shorter.  
Richardson didn’t go into specifics, but indicated that Auburn would do all it could in the way of research and development to help America find a solution for its oil dependency on foreign governments.

He pointed out that U.S. scientific expertise helped land men on the moon in 1969, providing advantages that helped people years later. "The real benefits came from issues related to health and medicine, safety and engineering," Richardson said. "I can see the same thing happening from what we’re involved with now. I see great secondary benefits and values."

His is a long title, but Faulkner made it easy for everyone to understand what his office does—searching for ways to develop new types of fuel to power our vehicles without having to rely on unstable countries at various spots on the globe.

  Switchgrass grown at Auburn University experiment center is mowed during a demonstration in Shorter.
Faulkner referred to Bush’s State of the Union address in which the president said America is "addicted to oil" and the best way to break the addiction "is through technology." Part of that technology was on display at the conference. Faulkner noted that Alabama is in a good position to assume a role in developing alternate fuel sources in America.

He talked at length about switchgrass—a prairie grass he said "produces great yields and on a life-cycle basis has a relatively low requirement of fossil energy to produce a gallon of fuel. Switchgrass can be grown throughout much of the arable land in the United States, including Alabama," said Faulkner.

A few minutes after he ended his remarks, more than 100 farmers, elected officials and interested spectators, moved from the big white tent to a nearby field where a large area of switchgrass was about to be mowed.

Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos, right, and Hoover police officer Barry Stamps stand next to a police vehicle that runs on an alternate fuel source.  
Sparks said switchgrass offers an attractive alternative to coal which is an expensive resource that must be mined far below the surface. It’s also a dangerous business as illustrated by dozens of deaths in the past year, including in Alabama.

"Rather than dig coal, we can grow this in our fields and it can supplement our farmers’ income and help us partner with power companies," Sparks said. "We have all kinds of technology in this country and using switchgrass is just one of them."

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Glen Zorn said switchgrass can be grown "like any other forage." He said fertilizer can help it grow to about 9 feet when it is ready to be harvested and then turned into a fuel source.

Sessions said he invited Faulkner to Alabama "to see first hand our capacity to work with switchgrass."

"We have tremendous amounts of wood products and agricultural assets along with rain and a lot of sunlight," Sessions said. "Switch-grass can capitalize on those assets that we can convert to fuel for our cars.

"It will happen; it’s got to happen," Sessions added. "Nothing will thrill me more than for our state to be a leader in that transformation."

Sparks likes to add poultry litter to the mix. He said more than a billion birds are raised each year in Alabama, producing enough potential "fuel" to power many vehicles.

One of the "stars" of the conference was Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos, who brought along one of his officers and a vehicle that is part of a fleet that runs on ethanol. Hoover’s fleet of more than 100 vehicles is the largest of its kind in the country. It is powered by a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. That’s why it’s referred to as E-85.

"We’re saving about $100,000 a year by using ethanol," Petelos said, as a large group of reporters and officials crowded around him. "We bring our ethanol in from Peoria, Ill. I’m hoping that one day we’ll have our own processing plant in Alabama. I can see it happening soon."

Hoover Police Officer Barry Stamps stood proudly by the SUV he drove down I-65 from Jefferson County and answered questions about the efficiency factors involved in using ethanol instead of gasoline.

"Take a look at the tailpipe on that SUV," Petelos said. "You run your finger through a traditional gasoline-fueled tailpipe and it’ll be black with soot. Check ours and you can see how nice and clean it is."

Those who support biofuel development see it as an answer not only to high oil prices from the Mideast, but also feel it will help in many other energy areas.

"What we’re working on is an initiative to focus on biomass," Sessions said. "It is a major challenge to our nation today and that’s why I wanted (Faulkner) to see first hand our capacity to work with switchgrass."

Sessions said unstable foreign governments "could leave us in a critical lurch at a time of national security. Our energy bill requires us to produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol for our economy by 2012," Sessions said. "Where will it come from? Well, I believe Auburn University and Alabama can be a big player. We have tremendous wood products and agriculture capacities."

The field conference’s most popular attraction was Wayne Keith’s "wood" truck. He had a "field day" explaining how his vehicle operates on cords of wood that are chopped and deposited into a boiler in the bed.

"I mow, chop and bag what I need for my fuel," Keith said, with a big smile. "I really don’t see a downside right now. My truck can go 75 miles an hour with no problem."

Keith, who lives in Springville and raises cattle, talked about his invention as curious people gathered around him. He said he drove his truck to the conference and didn’t have any problems along the way.

It’s unlikely Keith’s "fuel" will reach a nationwide audience, but those who put the conference together considered it just one more example of American ingenuity in using what’s available for a given task.

In his address, Faulkner noted that America’s transportation sector "is changing rapidly."

"It is starting to resemble the wide-open market competition of the early years of the (20th) century before the internal combustion engine running on gasoline won out over other competitors," Faulkner said.

He said hybrid vehicles are growing popular in the U.S. and, while they may be only a "drop-in-the-bucket" of the estimated 250 million gasoline-powered vehicles in the country, they represent a popular alternative. Faulkner said hybrids eventually may all run on "biofuels" which would result in "even greater reductions in imported oil."

That was music to Sparks’ ears. Since he became agriculture commissioner, he has been sounding the same theme.

"For every gallon of oil produced in Alabama means one less gallon of oil that we have to get from the desert," he said. "The science to do it is here now. We’ve just got to develop it."

It was evident from the demonstrations on display at the field conference—from the switchgrass to Keith’s "wood-powered truck"—that development is on the way.

The best news of all is the fact that Auburn University will play a role in finding a way to make America less dependent on dictatorial foreign oil prices.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.