Associated Press - Kristin Hall
NASHVILLE - Tennessee has a chance at becoming a major biodiesel hub because of the state's interstate highway system and ample land for increased soybean farming, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Monday.
Alexander held a roundtable discussion on biodiesel - a fuel blend that combines petroleum diesel with organic fuels from crops like soybeans - with representatives from soybean producers, clean energy organizations, fuel providers and auto mechanics at the Nashville Auto Diesel College.
The Republican senator said he wanted to gather information on biodiesel production in Tennessee to present to the Senate when he returns to Washington for hearings this week on alternative energy solutions.
There are 50 locations in the state where consumers can purchase biodiesel, but there are only two production plants in operation, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
Two other plants are being built, and several more companies are considering similar operations, according to Danny Rochelle, vice president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation.
"Tennessee is poised to be a major player in biodiesel production if we act quickly to position ourselves to be competitive with other states," Rochelle told Alexander.
Rochelle said the state's advantages are soybean production, which is the third leading agricultural commodity, access to major interstates, and its central location to major markets.
Parks Wells, the director of the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Council, said the state produces about 40 million bushels of soybeans each year.
Each bushel can create 1.4 gallons of biodiesel fuel, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wells estimated that the price of a bushel of soybeans could increase by 17 cents over the next 10 years as new biodiesel plants are being built across the country. The University of Tennessee reported that last week's cash prices ranged from $5.60 to $5.83 per bushel.
Soybean farming uses about 1.2 million acres in the state, which is only a fraction of the available cropland, Wells said.
Alexander said he was interested particularly in biodiesel production and consumer use in the state because it would reduce air pollution.
"I am very concerned with sulfur toxins in the air, particularly in East Tennessee," Alexander said.
Doug Fox, a vice president at the diesel college, said biodiesel fuel gives truckers a viable option to stay under the Environmental Protection Agency's new standards on diesel emissions.
"There is a very large cultural change coming for truckers as determined by new EPA standards," Fox said.
Fox added that the school is adding new courses to its curriculum to train students for alternative fuel engines such as hybrids.
"Our biggest obstacle is public education that there is a product out there that is as good or better than petroleum," said Dave Pelton, executive director of Clean Cities in Middle Tennessee.
Alexander said production of biodiesel is climbing, but the key is to inform consumers about the benefits of the fuel.
"Seventy-five million gallons of biodiesel were produced in 2005, and that is expected to increase to 150 million in 2006," Alexander said. "I'd like to see use of biodiesel increase to 3 (percent) to 4 percent of the total amount of fuel that we use."