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Next ethanol fuel years away

ST. PAUL - The catchphrase in agriculture and energy circles these days is "cellulosic ethanol," the next step in producing the American-made fuel.

But experts at a national ethanol conference warned Wednesday that commercial production of the fuel from grass, wood and waste may be a decade away. Test projects are being ramped up, and federal energy and farm bills may funnel money into more advanced tests, but experts say there are too many unanswered questions to promise the next ethanol stage soon.

Discussion about the new fuel source dominated Wednesday's 20th annual American Coalition for Ethanol conference, attended by 1,800 people active in the ethanol industry around the United States.

When cellulosic ethanol does arrive, Minnesota, and parts of North Dakota and South Dakota, will be a good place to raise switch grass that many proclaim as the next raw material for ethanol, said Kevin Kephart, South Dakota State University' vice president for research.

"We are in the heartland of where cellulosic industries are going to thrive," Kephart said.

Politicians from President Bush on down have promoted switch grass - an Upper Midwest native plant - as an answer to foreign oil dependence. It is supposed to be a more efficient raw material for ethanol production than corn, which is almost exclusively used to make American ethanol today.

Grass-to-ethanol technology needs development, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told the audience.

Peterson just finished shepherding a farm bill through the House, including funding for cellulosic test projects. He said one could be next to existing biomass plants in Benson, Minn. He told the audience the technology could be ready in five years; in an interview later, he said it more likely will be a decade before cellulosic ethanol will be commercially feasible.

Peterson also said money for the tests in current legislation may not be enough. He said a future Congress may have to increase spending to make the industry economically viable.

The Agriculture Committee chairman said Americans, even those in urban areas, are behind ethanol producers.

"This polls off the charts in the cities," Peterson said.

Kephart said there has been "insufficient work" on switch grass.

Among problems he said need to be overcome are how to prevent insects and disease in grass that seldom has been used as a crop. He also said transporting grass to regional ethanol plants would be difficult, so small processing machines on farms - or mobile ones that move from farm to farm - may need to be developed.

Chris Zygarlicke of the University of North Dakota-based Research, Energy and Environmental Research Center said six test plants already in operation - four of which use wood as the raw material - have been given four years to prove cellulosic ethanol can compete with traditional corn-based fuel.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has made renewable fuels his emphasis during a year-long term as National Governors' Association chairman, urged the ethanol industry to keep trying new things, and to fight "graduates of the national academy of it-can't-be-done."

The ethanol coalition's president, Bob Scott - a Grafton, N.D., native - made the ethanol effort sounds like a military campaign.

"The American Coalition for Ethanol is ready for the battle," Scott said. "They fight us with false information."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.