At Missouri ethanol plant, Obama touts biofuels

Kansas City StarApril 28, 2010 

President Obama visited Macon, Mo., Wednesday and told 200 people that green energy was a key to the country's future.

Speaking at Missouri's first ethanol plant, which produces 46 million gallons a year, he said that the biofuel was important to the country's move to green energy.

"There shouldn't be any doubt that renewable, home-grown fuels are a key part of our strategy," he said.

The amount of ethanol used in the U.S. must triple by 2022 under the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, and crops grown for biofuels to meet that standard should boost farm income by $13 billion, according to a new federal report on the green economy and rural economic prospects.

The increase required by the renewable standard also will boost the number of ethanol plants, which are mostly in rural areas.

Obama made an unannounced stop at Peggy Sue's Cafe in Monroe City, Mo., and was greeted near the Macon plant by about 100 people. The crowd was a mixture of supporters and protesters, including one who had a sign with a picture of rifle on it that said, "Try to take it away."

The president toured the ethanol plant and spoke there. He later headed to an area farm before leaving for Quincy, Ill., the last stop on his latest Main Street Tour.

His Midwest swing started Tuesday was a visit to a Siemens Energy plant in Iowa that makes blades for wind turbines.

Siemens is also building a $50 million wind turbine plant in Hutchinson, Kan.

The Macon ethanol plant also produces high-protein animal feed and carbon dioxide, which is often sold to soft-drink manufacturers.

The facility, which has 42 employees, is owned by Poet Biorefining, a Sioux Falls, S.D., company that has 26 ethanol plants in seven states.

The Macon plant was previously commended by the U.S. Department of Energy for its joint project with the Macon Municipal Utilities that built a 10-megawatt generator producing electricity and steam while using its waste energy.

The Obama visit was hailed by ethanol backers.

"I think the president has always been very forceful in his support, and it's recognition we do have a vital role to play in the nation's economy," said Tom Buis, chief executive office of Growth Energy, a group representing the ethanol industry.

He said ethanol kept money in the U.S. that otherwise would go to foreign oil producers. It also adds U.S. jobs, he said, and enhances national security by reducing oil imports.

"I think they understand the consequences," he said of the White House.

But others point out that the Macon plant and many others in the U.S. rely on corn to make ethanol. That can drive up food prices for consumers, they argue, and the energy needed to grow corn cuts into the overall energy value of ethanol.

Instead, they say, more ethanol needs to come from cellulose, including grass and wood. The Renewable Fuels Standard, in fact, calls for growing amounts of cellulosic ethanol. But the plants cost far more to build than corn ethanol and they’re struggling to find financing.

"It's time to focus on cellulose," said Jeremy Martin, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, adding that more needs to be done by the federal government.

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