Associated Press: Haslam, Alexander tour East Tenn. biorefinery

Posted on August 30, 2011

VONORE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander are touting the potential of making clean fuel out of a plentiful crop in East Tennessee.

The two Republicans visited a Vonore farm growing several types of switchgrass on Tuesday, followed by tours of the processing plant and biorefinery that are expected to begin making fuel from switchgrass next year. It currently makes ethanol from a variety of cellulosic materials like corn cobs.

Alexander said making ethanol out of switchgrass is preferable to corn because it doesn't drive up the price of an edible crop.

"This is fuel from crops that we don't eat," he said. "So if it works — which we hope it does — it will be very important for our country's future," he said.

Haslam said after the tour that if Tennessee can make a fuel that isn't subject to the whims of the international oil market, that is clean and domestically available, "that's a huge win for us."

"We're here today to help understand the economics of what stands between us and finally accomplishing that," he said.

Haslam's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, in 2007 pledged more than $70 million for developing what has been informally dubbed "grassoline," including $40 million for the biorefinery and $30 million for research into growing, harvesting, storing and transporting switchgrass.

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC and University of Tennessee-Genera Energy LLC are partnering on the project located between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Switchgrass has been grown under contract at more than 60 farms in nine counties.

"These folks took a chance with us to get into this business of growing switchgrass for fuel," said Sam Jackson, vice president for feedstock operations at Genera. "And we really do see the payoff coming for them in being those pioneers."

Alexander added that switchgrass has a potential "for extra income for farmers who live in rural areas."

Genera officials said switchgrass is projected to generate more than 650 gallons of fuel per acre, compared with a yield of 300 to 400 gallons per acre of corn. Ethanol, an alcohol obtained from the fermentation of sugars and starches, is used as an additive to or a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

Haslam and Alexander stressed that the key to the project will be whether it takes off without long-term government funding.

"With any new technology the key is to get the cost of it down so it can stand on its own in the marketplace," Alexander said. "The idea of long-term subsidies for energy is not practical."