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No corn cob harvest is lesson in biomass economics

BENSON -- Chippewa Valley Ethanol is leading the way in proving the technology and economics of biomass energy.

This year's lesson was all economics.

The company did not harvest corn cobs from farm fields this year due to low natural gas prices, according to Chad Friese, commodity manager for the Benson ethanol plant.

The company had harvested corn cobs in both 2009 and 2008 to test the logistics and technology of using corn cobs as a biomass energy source, as well as to learn the economics.

The company has a gasifier that converts biomass into a clean-burning synthetic gas that can be used in place of natural gas to power operations at the ethanol plant.

The gasifier has not been operating since May due to the low price of natural gas. The company has stockpiles of biomass it can use if natural gas prices rise to the point where it is more economical to use biomass, according to Friese.

The cost of natural gas is hovering in the range of $4.50 per million BTUs, or less than one-half the price seen at the peak of natural gas prices a couple of years ago. For Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., natural gas prices need to be over the $5 mark to make it more economical to use biomass.

The company proved last year that corn cobs could be separated and harvested along with the corn crop during a very wet and delayed harvest season. Ironically, this year the company would have enjoyed relatively dry and near ideal conditions for harvesting the cobs, Friese noted.

He said the company remains committed to biomass energy and hopes to continue its work to develop the infrastructure to make biomass harvesting a part of the local economy. He said the company is hopeful that a biomass crop assistance program will be available in the coming year to make it possible for farmers to participate in this ongoing research and development project.