Ag Secretary Highlights Biofuels During US Ship Visit

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went aboard the USS Monterey at the Naval Station Norfolk to highlight the commitment the military is making to advanced biofuels. He was joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Energy for Navy Tom Hicks.

“Developing the next generation of advanced biofuels for our nation’s military is both a national security issue and aneconomic issue,” said Vilsack. “By utilizing renewable energy produced on American soil, our military forces will become less reliant on fuel that has to be transported long distances and often over supply lines that can be disrupted during times of conflict. Meanwhile, a strong and diverse biofuels industry will support good-paying jobs in rural America that can’t be shipped overseas. Through this joint effort, USDA and the U.S. Navy have the opportunity to create a model for American energy security while ensuring the safety of our troops and the long term viability of our armed forces.”

“Secretary Vilsack’s leadership and the work carried out by USDA on alternative fuel is so critical to the Navy’s efforts to address a critical military vulnerability; our reliance on foreign oil,” stated U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Navy’s “Great Green Fleet,” a carrier strike group, including aircraft and surface ships, ran on biofuels off the coast of Hawaii as part of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Navy, USDA and the Department of Energy recently announced $30 million in funding for “drop-in” biofuel substitutes for diesel and jet fuel.

“Forever Young” Switchgrass for Cellulosic Ethanol

Scientists at the USDA might have found a way to keep switchgrass forever young and better for cellulosic ethanol. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) geneticist Sarah Hake, working with University of California-Berkeley plant geneticist George Chuck, found that taking a gene from corn called corngrass and inserting it into switchgrass keeps the grass always in a juvenile form that doesn’t flower, doesn’t produce seeds, and doesn’t have a dormant growth phase. And that means the sugars in the plant starch are more readily available for conversion into cellulosic ethanol.

The scientists observed that the leaves in the transgenic switchgrass are not nearly as stiff as leaves in switchgrass cultivars that haven’t been modified. In addition, they determined that leaf lignin is slightly different in the transgenic switchgrass than leaf lignin in other plants. This could lead to new findings on how to break down the sturdy lignin and release sugars for fermentation, a development that will be essential to the commercial production of cellulosic ethanol.

The researchers are now introducing DNA segments called genetic promoters that would “turn on” the expression of the corngrass gene just in aboveground switchgrass shoots. This could help increase root mass development that otherwise would be inhibited by the gene. Hake and Chuck also suggest that developing nonflowering switchgrass varieties would eliminate the possibility of cross-pollination between transgenic switchgrass cultivars and other switchgrass cultivars.

The work was published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

DF Cast: Debating the RFS Waiver

The EPA has just started the 30-day comment period for a proposed waiver of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). And just as the comments started, the National Corn Growers Association has asked for even more time for comments to come in.

But there’s no lack of viewpoints already out there. In this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, we’ll hear from National Turkey Federation president Joel Brandenberger, Purdue University’s Wally Tyner and Chris Hurt, former Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter, and Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis giving their thoughts about a possible RFS waiver.

You can listen to the Domestic Fuel Cast here: Domestic Fuel Cast

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

Vilsack Announces 106 Renewable Energy Projects

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced 106 projects in 29 states, Guam and Puerto Rico have been selected for funding to make renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. Money for the projects comes from the USDA Rural Development’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill.

“The Obama Administration is helping agricultural producers and rural small business owners across the country reduce their energy costs and consumption,” Vilsack said. “This is part of the President’s ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy, which involves expanding support for traditional as well as alternative energy sources. Stable energy costs create an environment for sustainable job growth in rural America.”

The release highlighted projects such as a Washington County, Iowa wind turbine on a farm and an anaerobic digester in Wisconsin that will produce enough power for 420 homes each year. You can see the complete list of projects here.

REAP provides grants and loan guarantees for agricultural producers and rural small businesses to reduce energy consumption and costs, use renewable energy technologies in their operations and conduct feasibility studies for renewable energy projects. USDA has an active portfolio of more than $170 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

Most Positive ACE Conference Ever

Despite a drought that is lowering the corn crop and causing ethanol plant shutdowns, American Coalition for Ethanol Executive Vice President Brian Jennings thinks the organization’s 25th annual conference last week was the most positive ever.

“We’re really encouraged and enthused about how the conference went,” said Jennings. “We know things are tough out there but we ended this conference on the most positive note I think we’ve ever ended a conference.”

Jennings was especially pleased with the strong support from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for both ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard and they agree with Vilsack’s view of keeping the RFS in place despite a lowered corn crop. “We won’t know how many bushels are produced until harvest,” he said. “It is premature for the calls that have been made to waive the RFS.”

Listen to my wrap-up interview with Brian Jennings here: ACE EVP Brian Jennings

2012 ACE Conference Photo Album

During the conference, three new board members were elected.

  • Paul Enstad, Board of Governors Chairman for Granite Falls Energy, LLC, a 60 million-gallon-per-year (MGY) ethanol producer in Granite Falls, MN
  • Doug Punke, CEO of Renewable Products Marketing Group (RPMG), an ethanol marketing company in Shakopee, MN
  • John Christenson has joined the ACE board representing Christianson and Associates

In addition, four board members were re-elected.

  • Ron Alverson, Wentworth, South Dakota, representing Dakota Ethanol
  • David Gillen,  White Lake, South Dakota, representing South Dakota Corn Utilization Council
  • Wallie Hardie, Fairmount, North Dakota, representing North Dakota Corn Growers Association
  • Brian Wilcox, Columbus, Nebraska, representing Nebraska Public Power District

RFA Puts USDA Crop Report in Context

Renewable Fuels AssociationRenewable Fuels Association Vice President of Research and Analysis Geoff Cooper put together an analysis of today’s USDA crop supply report on the RFA E-xchange Blog to put the report into perspective from both a historical context as well as a global production context, answering calls from some international voices to end global biofuel production.

“As expected, this morning’s supply-demand estimates from USDA showed a big reduction in the size of the 2012 corn crop and average yield. Today’s report estimates average yield at 123.4 bushels per acre (bpa), down nearly 23 bpa from USDA’s July estimate and the lowest yield since 1995. Harvested acres are pegged at 87.4 million, meaning a crop of 10.78 billion bushels (bbu) is expected. This is down more than 2 billion bushels from USDA’s July estimate and would be the smallest crop since 2006. Today’s USDA numbers were slightly worse than expected by analysts; on average, they had expected a crop of 10.97 bbu on a yield of 126.2 bpa. While this year’s harvest will be considerably smaller than initially expected, it is remarkable that farmers are still expected to produce the eighth-largest corn crop on record despite experiencing the worst drought in 50 years and the hottest month of July in recorded history.”

Listen to an interview with Cooper here: RFA's Geoff Cooper on USDA crop forecast

Subscribe to The Ethanol Report with this link.

Ag Secy Vilsack Stresses Support of RFS

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demonstrated his strong commitment to the ethanol industry and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by spending over an hour at the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) conference on Friday morning.

“This is an industry that is worth supporting,” he told the crowd of about 250 ethanol industry leaders. “Which is why the president is supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard, and it’s why I’m supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

In light of the lowered crop forecast for corn due to the drought, Vilsack noted that the RFS has built-in flexibilities and the market is responding as it should. “The market responds, the market reacts, the market pays attention, and we’re already seeing that,” he said.

Vilsack stressed the need for the industry to defend itself in the face of attacks by critics.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks here: Secy Vilsack at ACE


2012 ACE Conference Photo Album

Corn & Soybeans Down in USDA Report

The drought is certainly taking its toll on row crops, and that could be trouble for the nation’s biodiesel and ethanol makers. The latest USDA crop report out this morning shows that the corn harvest this year will be down 13 percent from last year’s numbers, with soybeans expected to be 12 percent lower than 2011.

Corn production is forecast at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from 2011 and the lowest production since 2006. Based on conditions as of August 1, yields are expected to average 123.4 bushels per acre, down 23.8 bushels from 2011. If realized, this will be the lowest average yield since 1995. Area harvested for grain is forecast at 87.4 million acres, down 2 percent from the June forecast but up 4 percent from 2011.

Soybean production is forecast at 2.69 billion bushels, down 12 percent from last year. Based on August 1 conditions, yields are expected to average 36.1 bushels per acre, down 5.4 bushels from last year. If realized, the average yield will be the lowest since 2003. Area for harvest is forecast at 74.6 million acres, down 1 percent from June but up 1 percent from 2011.

DF Cast: House’s Turn at Biofuels in Farm Bill

During the last Domestic Fuel Cast, we talked about the U.S. Senate’s work on the renewable energy provisions of the Farm Bill. In this edition, we follow the debate over to the House, where not much funding in the energy title of the bill moved out of the Agriculture Committee.

Listen to what some key lawmakers, as well as leaders from the renewable energy sector, farm groups, and government officials had to say as the discussion spilled over into another House committee considering changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

You can listen to the Domestic Fuel Cast here: Domestic Fuel Cast

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

New Investments to Drive Biofuels Innovations

USDAThe U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy Wednesday announced a $41 million investment in 13 projects designed to drive more efficient biofuels production and feedstock improvements.

“If we want to develop affordable alternatives for oil and gasoline that will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we need investments like these projects to spur innovation in bioenergy,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “By producing energy more efficiently and sustainably, we can create rural jobs, boost rural economies and help U.S. farmers, ranchers and foresters prosper.”

Five projects will be funded through the joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass and increase the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products. Those projects include $4.25 million for the Quad County Corn Cooperative in Galva, Iowa to retrofit an existing corn starch ethanol plant to add value to its byproducts, which will be marketed to the non-ruminant feed markets and to the biodiesel industry.

Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois will receive $7 million for a project to optimize rapeseed/canola, mustard and camelina oilseed crops for oil quality and yield using recombinant inbred lines. The oils will be hydrotreated to produce diesel and jet fuel.

A $6 million project at the University of Hawaii will optimize the production of grasses in Hawaii, including napier grass, energycane, sugarcane and sweet sorghum. Harvest and preprocessing will be optimized to be compatible with the biochemical conversion to jet fuel and diesel.

More information on the projects funded can be found here from USDA.

Ag Chief: Biodiesel Driving, Revitalizing Rural Economy

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack traveled back to Iowa today, praising biodiesel in his home state for driving and revitalizing rural America’s economy. In remarks during a meeting with Iowa biodiesel and farm industry representatives at the Soy Energy biodiesel production facility in Mason City, the USDA chief pointed to the green fuel as a demonstration of farmers bouncing back, according to this Iowa Biodiesel Board news release.

“This is the resilient face of agriculture we see here today,” Vilsack said, flanked by Soy Energy plant workers. “Biodiesel plants like this one are getting America back in the business of manufacturing. They are creating jobs and revitalizing the rural economy.”

The Iowa Biodiesel Board thanked the Secretary for his remarks and for his steadfast support of biodiesel.

“Iowa’s leadership in renewable energy production shows what we as a nation are capable of in building energy security and green jobs, and we’re equipped to do even more,” said Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board.

Those meeting with Vilsack pressed for more gallons of biodiesel under the Renewable Fuel Standard-2 (RFS-2). The EPA wants to go from 1 billion gallons this year to 1.28 billion gallons in 2013, what the Iowa biodiesel industry sees as a modest increase from last year’s record nearly 1.1 billion gallons of production.

The Iowa Biodiesel Board points out that Soy Energy, LLC is a “multi-feedstock” plant, capable of producing biodiesel from many different fats and vegetable oils, including corn oil left over from ethanol production.

Biofuels Play Major Role in Great Green Fleet Exercise

Biofuels are playing a significant role in the biggest maritime exercise in the world. About 450,000 gallons of biofuels made from non-food stocks have been used to fuel the ships and aircraft, known as the “Great Green Fleet,” taking part in the U.S. Navy’s and allied nation’s Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC).

“Yesterday, off the coast of Hawaii, was a great day for the Navy and a great day for America. It marked some serious steps to take us on the road toward energy security and energy independence,” says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. He notes advanced biofuels were seamlessly integrated into the operations, which included typical fighter jet flying and refuelings and ship-to-ship underway refuelings. “Absolutely no modifications were required or made to any of the engines that were burning biofuels.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack echoes those sentiments in this demonstration of U.S. military might and leadership. “It’s not just leadership to make us more secure from a national security or energy security standpoint. It’s also leadership for economic opportunities in rural areas.” Vilsack adds this use of American-made biofuels plays right into the bio-based economy, providing 400,000 jobs in the U.S., expected to go even higher when the full Renewable Fuels Standard is met.

Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Heather Zichal adds that this use of biofuels demonstrates to the world that the U.S. Navy is leading the way. “[The Navy] is sending a clear message that we cannot keep doing what we have done in the past. We cannot be timid about embracing new forms of energy, like biofuels, that have the potential to strengthen our energy security and reduce the military’s dependence on oil.”

Listen to the full press conference here: Press Conference on use of biofuels during RIMPAC

Ag Secretary Says RFS Okay with Ethanol Stocks

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a sobering press briefing Wednesday after meeting with President Obama about the impact of the nation’s drought on agricultural production.

Vilsack says the drought is “most serious situation we’ve had in 25 years” with 61% of the land mass of the United States is currently characterized as being impacted. About one third of the counties in the United States are now designated as secretarial disaster areas and that is expected to grow higher. “This obviously will have an impact on the yields,” he said.

When asked if the drought impact on corn should prompt action by the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back the use of corn for ethanol under the Renewable Fuel Standard, Vilsack said, “There is no need to go to the EPA at this time based on the quantity of ethanol that is in storage.”

The latest Energy Information Administration data from last week showed another drop in ethanol production from the previous week bringing the average weekly rate down to 841,000 barrels per day for an annualized rate of 12.89 billion gallons. Stocks of ethanol now stand at 19.6 million barrels or about 824 million gallons.

USDA Cuts Corn Yields and Ethanol Use

As expected, the USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate report out this morning did lower corn yields as a result of the hot and dry conditions throughout much of the growing region this summer.

The projected U.S. corn yield was lowered 20 bushels per acre to 146 bushels reflecting the rapid decline in crop conditions since early June and based on that and reduced harvested area based on the June 29 Acreage report, WASDE reduced corn production prospects by 1.8 billion bushels from last month. “Persistent and extreme June dryness across the central and eastern Corn Belt and extreme late June and early July heat from the central Plains to the Ohio River Valley have substantially lowered yield prospects across most of the major growing regions,” the report says.

Reduced supplies and higher prices are expected to sharply lower 2012/13 corn usage with the biggest reduction for feed and residual disappearance, projected down 650 million bushels. Food, seed, and industrial use is also projected lower, down 105 million bushels, mostly reflecting a 100-million-bushel reduction in corn used to produce ethanol. Exports are projected 300 million bushels lower as tight supplies, higher prices, and strong competition from South American exporters limit U.S. shipments. A 52-million-bushel increase in beginning stocks and a 15-million-bushel increase in imports offset only a small portion of the expected reduction in this year’s crop. Ending stocks for 2012/13 are projected at 1.2 billion bushels, down 698 million from last month’s projection. The season average 2012/13 farm price for corn is projected at $5.40 to $6.40 per bushel, up sharply from $4.20 to $5.00 per bushel in June.

Biofuels Defense Investments Announced

The Obama administration today announced new investments in the biofuels industry as part of the Defense Production Act (DPA).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Navy and Department of Energy jointly announced $30 million in federal funding to match private investments in commercial-scale advanced drop-in biofuels. The Energy Department is also announcing a total of $32 million in new investments for earlier stage research that will continue to drive technological breakthroughs and additional cost reductions in the industry.

“This is an important next step in the President’s direction to Navy, Agriculture and Energy to work together to support the commercialization of ready-to-use, drop-in, advanced biofuel substitutes for diesel fuel and jet fuel,” said U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. “This funding opportunity will enhance our national security and support the creation and commercial-viability of a defense-critical industry – domestic biofuels.”

Mabus explained that the DPA is an authority specifically designed to support defense-critical domestic industries, which includes energy. “Every time the price of oil goes up $1 a barrel, it costs the Navy an additional $30 million in fuel costs,” he added. “We don’t want to trade readiness for fuel. Diversity of supply is one of the keys to energy independence and energy security.”

“This is a matter of national security, energy security and also good for rural America,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It opens up great promise for the development of non-food feedstocks as a potential cash crop for farmers throughout the United States. The refineries that will be converting this biomass into fuel will likely be located in rural areas, helping to create jobs.”

The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) made possible through the DPA, will be carried out in two-phases, with government and industry sharing in the cost. In Phase 1, applicants will submit a design package and comprehensive business plan for a commercial-scale biorefinery, identify and secure project sites and take additional required steps spelled out in the announcement. Awardees selected to continue into Phase 2 will submit additional information for the construction or retrofit of a biorefinery.

Listen to a portion of this morning’s press announcement with Mabus and Vilsack:
Administration Press Conference