By Mary Spicer
VERNON TOWNSHIP — Another expert has come out against establishing an corn-to-ethanol plant in Crawford County, and once again the group spearheading the local ethanol effort is ignoring the advice.
Can northwestern Pennsylvania, once the nation’s petroleum pioneer, become a key player in the production of corn ethanol? The issue, debated for the past several years, arose again during a recent roundtable discussion hosted by members of the state’s House Republican Policy Committee’s energy task force at the Crawford County Cooperative Extension Office.
Representing Keystone Ethanol Energy Producers, a company formed to bring a corn-based ethanol plant to Crawford or Mercer counties, Democratic Crawford County Commissioner candidate Sherman Allen traced the origins of his group to November 2003, when Pennsylvania Farm Bureau hosted a panel on renewable energy. “They said ethanol production would raise the price of corn,” he recalled. “We thought that would be great.”
Although a $37,000 taxpayer-funded feasibility study developed for the group recommended abandoning the project because the 7 percent projected return on investment wasn’t sufficient to sustain a viable business, “most farmers would be delighted with a 7 percent return,” Allen explained. The group has learned a lot since the process began — and since the feasibility study was completed, he continued. Far from abandoning the venture, KEEP has a consultant coming in September to help choose a site.
That isn’t a visit agricultural economist James Dunn from Penn State University recommends. As Dunn sees it, the bottom line on corn ethanol is simple. “I wouldn’t do it in Pennsylvania,” he said, summing up his presentation to the task force. “The math doesn’t work.”
According to Dunn, who has been a member of the Penn State faculty since 1977, five factors determine the profitability of an ethanol plant: the price of gasoline; the price of corn; the price of distiller’s grains; whether the distiller’s grains produced by the plant, which have a wet shelf life of three days in summer and six days in winter, can be sold wet; and the cost of transportation. Drying the grain, the group learned, adds a substantial — perhaps even prohibitive — expense to the overall production cost of corn ethanol.
In Pennsylvania, Dunn continued, the price of gasoline is at the national average or below; the price of corn is very high; the price of distiller’s grains, which is high now, will fall as soon as several ethanol plants go into production; the volume of wet distiller’s grains produced by a single plant would feed at least 300,000 dairy cattle, more than half the state’s entire dairy cattle population; and the cost of trucking in enough corn to feed an ethanol plant would present “a challenge” because Pennsylvania isn’t geographically close to the nation’s major corn surpluses.
Corn ethanol advocate Scott Preston of Centerville disagreed. “There are many success stories for ethanol out there,” he said. And finding a market for the wet grain isn’t a problem, he assured members of the task force, recalling the days when he delivered loads of wood to the former Hammermill Paper plant in Erie and picked up loads of spent grain — the leftovers when the distilling process is complete — at the former Koehler Brewing Co., distributing it on his return trip to local farmers who used it as feed.
Harvesting Penn’s woods
Scott Weikert, a forest resources educator with Penn State University’s Forest County Cooperate Extension Office, told the group that 469 million tons of low-use wood — defined as wood having poor form, small size, low quality and low value — are available in Pennsylvania for harvest. “A quarter of the state’s current oil usage could be replaced by wood resources,” he explained, stressing that management techniques already exist to keep the harvest sustainable. “Any place that has a boiler has the potential to use wood — and to generate electricity from that wood,” he said.
Tom Wilson, an agricultural engineer with the Crawford County Cooperative Extension Office, is already working on a plan that would turn waste wood products into energy. “There are tremendous opportunities to save energy,” he said, urging the legislators to put funding in place to provide those opportunities.
Inspired by Weikert’s and Wilson’s presentations, Preston noted that the area has a unique resource that could be put to use providing an alternative energy source — low-use-wood — for the corn ethanol plant and also distributing the wet grain that will be its main byproduct. “A lot of truckers and cutters went out of business when Hammermill closed — and they’re still out there,” he said.
Wood, however, isn’t the area’s only viable alternative energy source. At Ernst Conservation Seeds, the focus is on switchgrass, but not for the production of ethanol — at least not in the short term. According to President Calvin Ernst, who called on the committee to “eliminate cumbersome regulations that are slowing down development” of a number of alternatives to petroleum, pellets manufactured from warm-season grasses such as switchgrass could reduce the nation’s need for heating fuels — now.
“Two acres of marginal ground planted with unfertilized switchgrass would heat an average house for a year,” Dan Arnett, biomass coordinator for Ernst Conservation Seeds, said.
For roundtable co-chair Michele Brooks, whose 17th District includes central and southern Crawford County, the discussion “was a collective effort to bring everyone to the table to come up with a variety of ideas of what will work and what will not work for the residents of Pennsylvania and to establish a solid strategic and feasible energy policy that best works for our consumers and our businesses.”
Arnett identified the tone of the day’s presentations. “For the state — or the nation — to put all its resources into a single concept is ludicrous. We tried that one time — with petroleum,” he said.
The local hearing was one of several that have been conducted during recent months. “We’ll be going back (to Harrisburg) Sept. 17 and working through the fall,” Brooks said, stressing that any plan the policy committee comes up with “must be feasible without new taxes and fees.”
“I don’t think you can walk away from coal, natural gas and nuclear power,” said committee chairman Mike Turzai after the presentations were complete. “They’re all important components of energy, and we need to work at making these energy sources available in an environmentally-friendly way. But given all this discussion of other alternative energies, we need to know what the plusses and minuses are of ethanol — and of different types of ethanol. We learned so much today about its viability, both from a research perspective and from an economic perspective. ... I think what we learned today is that the governor and this administration are banking on ethanol far too much. I think more tangible opportunities lie in low-use wood.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mary Spicer