Column: Let’s not lose sight of the larger message

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Gene Hugoson, Minnesota Agriculture

For many years, the research community has fought a low-intensity battle over the economic and environmental benefits of renewable fuels such as ethanol. The latest salvo came on July 10 from a University of Minnesota report claiming that ethanol and biodiesel are good &045; just not as good as some people think.

There are parts of this study that deserve closer scrutiny and skepticism. For example, the researchers claim to have found a lower positive energy balance for ethanol than the 1.67:1 ratio that was reported in a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Also, the study apparently does not take into account the progress some ethanol plants in Minnesota are taking to become even more efficient by powering their facilities with renewable energy sources such as corn syrup.

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However, I choose to look at this particular glass as half full. Taken as a whole, the report’s conclusions may actually be positive for ethanol and biodiesel. You may not have thought that to be the case if you listened only to media summaries, but consider some of the report’s findings:

– Ethanol and biodiesel both have significant positive net energy balances, meaning we get more energy from them than we use to produce them.

– Ethanol and biodiesel both help reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

– The benefits of renewable fuels are expected to improve as we develop the capacity to make them from more products such as switchgrass and woody plants.

The main criticism I saw in the report and its summaries was that biofuels as currently produced will not &8220;come close to meeting the growing demand for alternatives to petroleum.&8221; That’s true, but then again, I haven’t heard many people claiming that ethanol or biodiesel would ever completely replace petroleum as an energy source. Instead, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and I have repeatedly said that our current ethanol and biodiesel industries are promising steps toward a future of clean, homegrown energy.

The solution to America’s energy problems is unlikely to come in the form of a single miracle cure. Instead, it will take years of hard work and multiple approaches including cleaner fuels, more efficient cars and equipment, conservation measures, and many other small but positive steps.

Meanwhile, we can feel good about the fact that we are already ahead of the game because Minnesota farmers and their allies had the foresight two decades ago to start laying the foundation for a world-class renewable fuels industry in this state. We can feel good about having a governor and other leaders who recognize the value of becoming a global leader in renewable energy. Thanks to the vision of these farmers and leaders, Minnesota leads the nation in per capita use of renewable energy and we are recognized across the globe as a model for how to create a strong renewable energy sector.

It’s unfortunate that much of the discussion around this report focused on the statement that biofuels are not an energy cure-all. That conclusion misses the point completely. We shouldn’t lose sight of the larger message that renewable fuels are a step in the right direction for our country especially when you consider the consequences of continued addiction to foreign oil.

Sure, America has more steps to take. But thanks to Minnesota’s leadership, important steps have already been taken and we’re closer to our goal today than ever. We may not have reached the finish line yet, but we’re on the right path.

(Gene Hugoson is Minnesota’s commissioner of agriculture.)