U.S. Ag secretary visits biofuel plant

Published 8:52 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2010

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Southwest Georgia Monday to highlight how his agency’s work is benefiting rural communities.

Vilsack and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop toured the First United Ethanol LLC (FUEL) biofuel plant located just outside Pelham, Ga., about 35 miles northeast of Bainbridge. FUEL has several connections to Decatur County and its officials said the plant has had a significant impact on Southwest Georgia since production of ethanol fuel began in 2008.

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Creating a strong, vibrant rural economy is the central focus of a slate of U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives announced by Vilsack on Oct. 21.

The USDA’s Renewable Fuel Standard sets a goal of American biorefineries producing 31 billion gallons of biofuels. Today, the United States produces about 12 billion gallons of ethanol biofuels and about 800 million gallons of biodiesel. Reaching that goal would reduce the United States’ spending on imported petroleum by an estimated $350 billion, according to Vilsack. A significant growth in production of biofuel would also benefit the environment. As biofuel burns cleaner its widespread use would result in less air pollution, he said.

Using domestically produced biofuels instead of petroleum produced overseas would also bolster national security, said Bishop, who serves on the defense and agriculture subcommittees of the U.S. House’s Appropriations Committee.

“A country that is energy-independent will maintain first place in the global marketplace,” Bishop said. “Everything is dependent on energy … [using biofuels,] we will not have to buy oil from other countries to fuel our military’s vehicles when we can possibly be self-sufficient.”

Vilsack, Bishop and members of their staff were taken on a tour of the large FUEL facility by CEO Murray Campbell, a Mitchell County farmer, and Chairman Tommy Dollar, owner of Dollar Farm Products in Bainbridge.

One of the USDA’s initiatives is the establishment of regional Biomass Research Centers for the development of non-food biomass feed stocks. As part of their duties, the centers will assist USDA Rural Development officials in the development and construction of new biorefineries. Tifton, Ga., will be one of the Southeastern center’s sites.

Biorefineries can boost rural economies

Campbell highlighted how a biorefinery can have an extensive positive impact on the local and regional economy.

FUEL, which now has 62 employees, built the first biofuel plant with a production capacity of 100 million gallons per year in the southeastern United States. The ethanol it produces is shipped by truck to fuel retailers. Blends of traditional unleaded gasoline found at many gas stations contain up to 10 percent ethanol to help the gas burn cleaner and meet federal environmental standards, Campbell said. E-85 gasoline can be used by vehicles with FlexFuel technology.

Bainbridge already has two E-85 pumps for commercial use and pumps for private consumers can be found in cities like Tifon and Tallahassee, Fla. Among the local companies using FUEL’s ethanol include Sharber Oil Company and Southwest Georgia Oil.

Vilsack said other USDA efforts include: research of other biofuel blends that can be used by vehicles and aircraft; research into the use of woody biomass and other agricultural products to make biofuels; encouraging use of biofuels by federal agencies like the USDA and U.S. Navy; supporting tax incentives and tax credits for businesses involved in the biofuel industry; and working with the auto and fuel retailing industries to make usage of E-85 more convenient for consumers.

FUEL ships an average of 235 ethanol trucks per week within a 100-mile radius of the plant. An average of 325 trucks per week visit the plant to pick up dried distillers grains and wetcake, two byproducts of ethanol production, for delivery to farmers who use it for animal feed.

FUEL captures some of the carbon dioxide that is emitted during ethanol production and sells it to AirGas, which has a facility next to the FUEL plant. AirGas has 14 full-time employees and ships an average of 17 to 23 trucks per day.

About 31 percent of the trucks that come to FUEL serve the Bainbridge market, Campbell said. While trains deliver most of the 36 million bushels of corn it needs to produce ethanol, FUEL gets about 24 percent of the required corn from Southwest Georgia growers. The company also pays millions in property taxes, sales tax, electricity, natural gas, chemicals and production ingredients—money that goes back into the local and Georgia economies, Campbell said.

Also on Monday, Vilsack and Bishop visited the Southwest Georgia Regional Information Technology Authority in Arlington, Ga., to learn more about the installation of broadband Internet in rural communities. He also had lunch with members of the American Peanut Shellers Association in Albany, Ga., to learn more about how the peanut business helps rural economies.