Bridgewater Township’s struggle with Progressive Rail over a proposed ethanol plant is covered in tomorrow’s StarTribune South section.
Advanced BioEnergy hopes to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol per year. According to an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy study, it takes 3.5 to 6 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol produced. The proposed ethanol plant will therefore use between 350 and 600 million gallons of water per year, a question that Locally Grown tried to pursue in its podcast on the topic.
According to the article, Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon told the town board this spring that if the ethanol plant isn’t built, a rail company could pursue industrial use of the land without local approval. Bridgewater is currently considering this “reality”.
Two months ago, I never really thought about ethanol. Now, thanks to Progressive Rail’s efforts to get an ethanol plant built in Bridgewater Township, I’m reading everything on the subject that comes my way.
In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, there was an editorial piece called “Very, Very Big Corn”. It started with President Bush’s recent call to reduce gasoline consumption and proposal to invest $2 billion dollars to promote the development of cellulose ethanol.
According to the article, “cellulosic ethanol-which is derived from plants like switch grass-will require a big technological breakthrough to have any impact on the fuel supply. That leaves corn- and sugar-based ethanol, which have been around long enough to understand their significant limitations.”
The piece goes on to say that the recent “stampede” toward ethanol is based on the federal and state subsidies that ran to about $6 billion dollars last year, “equivalent to roughly half its wholesale market price. Ethanol gets a 51-cent a gallon domestic subsidy, and there’s another 54-cent a gallon tariff applied at the border against imported ethanol. Without those subsidies, hardly anyone would make the stuff, much less buy it-despite the recent high oil prices.”
The subsidy has caused the percentage of the U. S. corn crop devoted to ethanol to rise from 3% to 20% in just five years, for a total of about 8.6 million acres of American farmland. According to the article, “reaching the President’s target of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 would, at present corn yields, require the entire U. S. corn crop”.
The price of corn rose nearly 80% in 2006 alone. This dramatic increase is driving up the price of burgers and making America’s meat-packing industries less competitive in the world market.
The Journal, hardly a popular subscription among tree-huggers, then raises the environmental issues. “As an oxygenate, ethanol increases the level of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere and thus causes smog”. In terms of global warming, the use of ethanol in gasoline “reduces greenhouse gas emissions by no more than 5%”. Well, I will say that, in my opinion, 5% is better than nothing, but we should be striving for more substantial objectives.
Moving on to the cost benefit analysis, of greatest interest to my personal evaluation process, the piece notes that scientific opinion is “divided about whether the energy inputs required to produce ethanol actually exceed its energy output. It takes fertilizer to grow the corn, and fuel to ship and process it, and so forth. Even the most optimistic estimate says ethanol’s net energy output is a marginal improvement of only 1.3 to one.” Not much better than the 1.25 to 1 ratio cited in the University of Minnesota – St. Olaf College report cited by Tracy Davis in a previous Locally Grown blog.
The article concludes that “betting billions of tax dollars and millions of acres of farmland on this hope strikes us as bad policy. If cellulose is going to be an energy miracle-an agricultural cold fusion-far better to let the market figure it out.”
If the Wall Street Journal is correct, and that ethanol doesn’t make economic sense, environmental sense or energy sense, wouldn’t the ethanol plant in Bridgewater Township be created so that a few investors could harvest some sun-setting subsidies?
California rail transit agency Caltrain wants to replace its diesel locomotives with efficient Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) rail cars, whose benefits include faster speeds, lower fuel costs, and lower maintenance, as well as less wear and tear on the train tracks. However, due largely to their lighter weight, EMU trains are not compliant with many current federal rail regulations. Caltrainâ€™s work with state and federal agencies to amend some of these outdated rail regulations may pave the way for other transit organizations to modernize as well – if they are successful. Read more about it here. (Progressive Rail â€“ can you help?)
I’m heading over to eBay right now, to see if I can buy myself a lobbyist….
Eight days ago, we interviewed Dave Fellon, president of Progressive Rail, while riding the train from their offices in Lakeville to Northfield. (See the blog post of photos from that day.) Yesterday, we did a post-mortem with just us three LG hosts in Tracy’s office.
I’ve divided up the audio into three separate podcast episodes and will post them over the next 3 days. Here’s the first, done on the train. It includes our discussion of commuter rail at the beginning, followed by a discussion of Northfield’s rail infrastructure (starting at the 5:15 mark) and its role in our future economic development
Progressive Rail brought a flatbed rail car to Northfield this afternoon, decked out with a huge “Support Ethanol Production” banner. The flatbed is now parked in their Northfield rail yard adjacent to Hwy 19 between Malt-o-Meal and Kwik Trip.
A tip-of-the-blogger hat to Nick Benson for the photos and the story. Click to enlarge.
Last Saturday at 9 am, KYMN Radio 1080 AM aired a paid programming call-in show for Prairies to Power featuring Dave Fellon.
It was the second show in an ongoing series. KYMN’s host was Dusty Budd and you may recognize the voices of some of the callers. I got permission from Fellon to post the audio here. Apologies for the low-quality audio… I just stuck my tape recorder in front of the radio speakers.
Click play to listen. 28 minutes. (No podcast.)
Where the heck is the podcast of our train ride interview from last week with Progressive Rail president Dave Fellon?
Quit nagging me. It’s coming. 😉 My fellow LG co-hosts and I are meeting Friday afternoon to do a post-mortem.
We got the tour of Progressive Rail‘s facilities in Lakeville and Northfield today, as well as a train ride from one to the other during which we conducted our podcast interview with company president Dave Fellon. (Podcast episode of that coming Real Soon Now.)
Click play to see a 25 second video of Ross harrassing the northwest neighborhood of Northfield with the train whistle and see the album of 30+ photos of our tour and trip.