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Alternative energy production increasingly viable in state

The pursuit of alternative energy to boost the farm economy while reducing dependence on foreign oil that causes concerns about the trade deficit is making progress in Mississippi on a number of fronts including better utilization of biomass for energy production, the state’s first commercial solar operation, biodiesel operations that are already in production and a new $58-million ethanol plant proposed for Greenville.

Kenneth Calvin, director of the energy division of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), said the state is moving forward on many fronts at the same time. He adds that considering historically high prices for oil and gas, the state’s progress on the alternative energy front is very timely.

“This time of year I get bombarded about questions from residential, commercial to industrial customers who ask, ‘What can I do? Utility prices have gone up,’” Calvin said. “All of these energy users have recurring costs, and are seeking ways to better manage those costs.”

With oil so high, alternative energy production is more competitive than in the past when gas was at only $1 per gallon. And Calvin said the alternative energy technology has improved so it is both more cost effective and has greater reliability.

Ethanol plant could add 40 jobs

The largest investment in alternative energy announced thus far is an ethanol plant in Greenville. E.O.H. Energy, LLC, has plans for a $58-million ethanol processing plant that would represent the third largest single industrial investment ever made in Washington County. The ethanol would be produced from corn, and when it goes online it is expected to employ 40 people.

Al Brock, chairman of the Industrial Foundation of Washington County, said the project is moving along with a good deal of momentum right now.

“They are at the stage of finalizing the site and infrastructure issues, and will hopefully be moving forward with construction at the first of the year,” Brock said. “The project is very unique in that it is local investors with a heart who have a real desire to see the local economy prosper. They believe that alternative fuel plants such as ethanol benefit not only the Delta, but the state as a whole.”

Brock said typically ethanol is used as an additive to gasoline. The advantages include reducing dependence on foreign oil and decreasing air pollution. Ethanol is seen as a better alternative to the MTBE fuel additive. MTBE makes gas burn cleaner, but problems with groundwater pollution from the addictive have diminished its acceptance.

“So, now there is a huge demand for ethanol, and there are new plants coming on line all across the country,” Brock said. “Many of the industry experts say that Greenville, Miss., is absolutely one of the best locations for a site due to its access to the river for transportation, the Southeastern demand for the ethanol and, obviously, the high availability of corn as a feedstock.”

“There is no question that this will be good for the area,” Wynn Sanders, CEO of E.O.H. Energy, said during a news conference earlier this year to announce the project. “The first year of operation will produce $110 million and will do the same every subsequent year.”

Calvin said ethanol has a lot of promise.

“When looking at production of all types of alternative energy in Mississippi, you have to ask what comes first, the chicken or the egg,” he said. “The promise and opportunities are still there. But when you make plans for production, you have to think about who you are going to sell it to. It important to have the customers lined up.”

One potential market for ethanol and biodiesel is the metropolitan market of the Memphis area. Memphis is in non-attainment with EPA air quality standards, and is required to take steps to improve air quality. The purchase of alternative fuels could be one way to meet better air quality standards.

Potential seen in biomass

Another area where Mississippi is making progress is the use of biomass — byproducts from timber, agricultural or animal production — to produce energy.

Calvin said that the state has just received funding assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy to assist with an on-the-farm anaerobic digester system which will convert chicken litter into useful products such as methane gas and fertilizer. There is potential also for farmers to turn problem odors from hog farm lagoons into a profit by collecting methane gas from lagoons for energy production usage.

Calvin gives an example of how biomass can help meet part of the energy needs of the state. A business owner was concerned about the increasing costs of natural gas to fuel his lumber drying kiln. MDA helped the kiln owner solve the problem by switching over to using its wood waste to dry the lumber.

“What would have been landfilled at one time is being burned, and used as fuel to help dry lumber,” Calvin said. “Those are the kinds of innovations we are looking at.”

Mississippi has double the amount of utilization of biomass for energy as is average in the U.S.
With poultry as one of the top commodities in the state, large amounts of chicken litter are produced. Calvin said those wastes can cause a problem if too much is applied to the land with resulting nutrient runoff into local bodies of water. The nutrient runoff can lead to algae blooms that kill fish. A good alternative would be burning some of the litter to produce energy.

“There is great potential for conversion of waste stream biomass to energy,” Calvin said.

Ag could solve oil problem?

David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said agriculture holds promise for helping the U.S. lessen its dependence on foreign oil.

“Agriculture has the capacity of solving that problem,” Waide said in a recent issue of Mississippi Farm Country devoted to articles about alternative energy. “It is indeed a challenge, but it is a challenge that must be conquered. We, as producers of U.S. commodities, must have an opportunity to be a player in this vast market and create stability in everything that we as a nation expect to maintain as our living standards.”

Waide said universities continue to make progress finding new and better ways to provide a renewable fuel source that is more efficient. “The reality is that the feedstocks we have used in the past have not produced enough energy to solve our problem, because they have not resulted in enough production above the cost of the feedstocks needed to manufacture substitutes for crude oil products,” Waide said. “But that is rapidly changing. For months now, I have used a blend of crude oil and soy diesel in a truck that operates extremely efficiently on it. As of now, the cost is slightly higher than using a crude oil product, but technology will solve that dilemma.”

Improvements have been made recently in the feedstock for ethanol. Waide said in place of getting 500 gallons out of an acre of biomass (which isn’t enough to make it cost competitive with oil), researchers are on the verge of producing from 1,000 to 1,500 gallons from that same acre of biomass.

While numerous questions remain unanswered about alternative fuel, Waide said the generation of electricity from biomass is an area that is growing in popularity.

“It offers tremendous hope,” Waide said. “I believe that a solution to some of the problems is inevitable.”

The state is also moving ahead with solar demonstration projects. The MDA energy department has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roof Program.

“As a part of joining the Million Solar Roof effort, we have pledged that we are going to push solar energy in Mississippi by installing a number of solar applications on multi-family housing units throughout the state,” said Calvin, adding that passive solar hot water heaters which use the sun’s rays to heat water rather that heating water by conventional gas and electricity is one of the most cost effective uses of alternative energy.

MDA has been involved in working with other divisions such as Community Services to install a number of passive hot water heaters in low-income family homes.

The solar hot water heaters have also been installed at a Habitat for Humanity house, a Montessori School in Jackson and the Energy House at the Agriculture Forest Museum. One benefit of the project is that technicians are being trained on installation. Calvin said that improves the capacity of the state to have technical expertise available to install solar alternatives.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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