Minnesota’s biodiesel industry will be officially born Thursday, carrying the dreams of farmers and small communities for greater profits, more jobs and rural development.
But first, the fuel must prove itself.
Minnesota will become the first state to require that all diesel fuel contain 2 percent biodiesel, a renewable fuel made from soybeans.
The Minnesota Legislature passed the law in 2002, but only now are the biodiesel plants finally finished, production started and the blend ready. The largest of those plants, capable of processing 30 million gallons of biodiesel fuel a year, is here in Glenville, not far from the Iowa border.
“It’s a very exciting time,” said Bob Worth, a soybean farmer in southwest Minnesota. “Just think, it takes 250 million years to create fossil fuel, and it takes six months to create a gallon of biodiesel. And it’s renewable, it’s just fantastic; so it’s grown here and produced here in Minnesota.”
But not all Minnesotans are celebrating. Some grumble that taxpayers were first required to subsidize biodiesel and now are required to use it. And some truckers and other diesel users worry how a biodiesel blend will perform, particularly during Minnesota winters. If problems do arise, the backlash could be strong.
“There’s some fear out there with the trucking industry,” said Mike Bute, a diesel technician instructor at Riverland Community College who has heard concerns about fuel economy, engine warranties and cold-weather performance. “It’s a real cautious, wait-and-see thing going on right now.”
But biodiesel boosters say they’re not worried. They cite years of research that show biodiesel is ready for the big time and they believe Minnesota’s mandate will kick-start a national industry that can provide a home-grown fuel, support crop prices and rejuvenate rural communities with new jobs and new investment.
“We just didn’t have much of an industry here, and all of a sudden, the same farmers who built the ethanol industry decided it was time to go,” said Ralph Groschen with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “They put the money in and built these biodiesel plants. It was a gutsy move, and they’re the reason why Minnesota is really kind of leading the renewable energy industry in the country.”
Glenville’s gleaming new biodiesel plant, arising from a soybean field, is the largest in the country. It can produce more biodiesel in one year than the entire United States produced last year.
The plant was financed and built by a group of soybean growers-turned-investors, who saw the benefits ethanol brought to corn growers and hoped for the same. Roger Peterson was one of 600 farmers who, five years earlier, each invested five-figure sums toward a biodiesel plant, even before the state mandate and new federal tax credits kicked in.
“We happen to live in an area where we have a lot of forward-thinking people, and they could see that we were all going broke farming under the current system,” Peterson said. “They were interested in doing something that could add value to their crops.”
Tony Prehm is general manager at Glenville’s SoyMor plant, where soy oil is processed into biodiesel. Although the month-old plant is already running at full steam, there’s very little noise and virtually no odor evident anywhere in the plant.
“These plants are real environmentally friendly,” Prehm said. “You don’t see a stack blowing off emissions.”
A second new plant, near Brewster in southwest Minnesota, also just opened and is ramping up production toward the 30-million-gallon capacity. Soon, those plants will produce about four times as much as the state mandate requires.
Will it sell? Probably so, Groschen says. With today’s soaring energy prices, biodiesel carries a real cost advantage. Last week, the wholesale price of regular diesel averaged about $2.13 a gallon.
Biodiesel “would probably be $1.80, $1.90 a gallon for a bulk delivery,” Groschen said.
Nor are farmers alone in eyeing biodiesel plants. At agribusiness giant Cargill, “I think it’s fair to say that renewable energy is something that we’re really stepping up,” said spokesman Bill Brady. While Cargill primarily is investing in ethanol for now, the company does have biodiesel capacity in Europe, and sees potential for more.
“It fits with Cargill,” Brady said. “For 140 years, we’ve been finding markets for things that grow, and this fits with that.”
But before biodiesel goes big-time, it must prove itself during the rigors of a Minnesota winter. Pure 100 percent biodiesel begins to gel right around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., has heard the concerns as he pushed pro-biodiesel legislation in Washington.
“People talk about the concern in cold weather, but they have to blend No. 1 and No. 2 diesel in cold weather anyway, so it’s not a new thing for them to adjust the blend for extremes in temperature,” Dayton said.
Dayton is among Minnesota lawmakers who think biodiesel could be a positive development on many fronts for farmers, for energy production, for rural development and crop prices. He foresees not just a 2 percent biodiesel blend but 10 percent, 20 percent and more.
“Biodiesel in Minnesota is where ethanol was almost a decade ago, when that mandate first took effect,” Dayton said. “People had concerns about the reliability and the effect on their engines, and this will show those concerns are unfounded. We give lip service to reducing our dependency on foreign oil, but ethanol and biodiesel are the best and really only alternatives we have right now.”
Grand Forks Herald