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Merits of renewable energy debated at Farmfest

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 08/30/2013 1:02 PM

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GILFILLAN, Minn. -- Sparks flew during a renewable energy panel at Farmfest.

The first four speakers out of the chute: Sen. Al Franken, Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Doug O'Brien, Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson and Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman praised renewable energy.

The fifth speaker, Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, took aim at the turkey litter plant in Benson, asking what problem legislators were trying to solve by taking a fertilizer off the market and burning it for fuel. He said it makes no economic sense to require utilities to pay more for renewable fuel than they can sell it for.

Beard's questions went unaddressed in the 90-minute forum. Instead, both sides stated their opinions and took audience questions.

Franken, who with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, authored the energy provisions in the Senate version of the farm bill, said the provisions include loans and grants for renewable energy projects, loans and grants to build refineries that produce biofuels and money for the Rural Energy for America Program.

He said farmers don't just want a farm bill, they need one.

One reason is because of the $900 million in funding for the energy title during the next five years. The House version of the farm bill doesn't contain this funding and neither will an extension of the 2008 farm bill.

In Minnesota, consumers spend $12 billion annually on electricity and heating their homes, Rothman said. The Commerce Department works to ensure that consumers have an affordable and reliable energy supply. The backbone of the renewable energy economy is rural America, Rothman said.

The state has adopted a Renewable Energy Standard, which requires utilities to get 25 percent of their total electrical generation from renewable sources by the year 2025. It is one of the nation's strongest renewable energy standards.

Frederickson said because of the 10 percent ethanol mandate, Minnesota farmers have three spigots coming out of their grain bin, one for livestock feed, one for food and one for ethanol.

The next discussion in Minnesota will be moving forward with 10 percent blends of biodiesel, he said.

At the national level, the renewable fuels standard is under attack, said Doug Bervan, vice president of corporate affairs for POET, the world's largest ethanol producer.

Bervan said the national renewable fuels mandate spurred significant investment in rural America. It's also reduced dependence on foreign oil and improved the environment.

The POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels plant now under construction in Emmetsburg, Iowa, will be the nation's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant. It's a partnership between POET, which is based in South Dakota, and DSM, a global science company. The plant will produce 25 million gallons of ethanol annually from stover.

Bervan said fossil fuels have dominated society for 200 years, but he thinks it's possible to be independent of fossil fuels.

It's no less dangerous for other countries to depend on us for food than it is for us to depend on the Middle East for oil, he said.

Jon Brekke of Great River Energy said the wholesale energy generation cooperative is looking at renewable energy sources beyond wind because they have plenty of wind energy when it's windy.

Another factor complicating the electricity market is the price of natural gas. Last year, natural gas prices were cheap, but the prices are also really volatile. The low natural gas prices make it harder to invest in plants that use other types of technology, Brekke said.

There are costs to burning fossil fuels and there are logical reasons to move toward more renewable fuels, Franken said. Among them is that 98 percent of climate scientists say climate change is occurring. The United States isn't alone in investing in renewable fuels, China and India are, too, he said.

Beard said reliable, dependable baseload power makes the nation profitable and prosperous.