Ethanol: Has its time come at last?
The story was buried inside the national news section of the local papers, but the announcement of Florida’s first ethanol plant may have long-range consequences for a state seeking an industry to complement tourism and agriculture. The venture will be located next to a landfill in Indian River County and will produce ethanol from waste. The $100 million contract is going to a Georgia firm. It is expected to produce 175 construction jobs and 50 full-time jobs when completed. The plant hopes to produce 8 million gallons of ethanol annually, as well as some electricity as a by-product.
Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson said two more Florida plants are scheduled to open in the next few years. The surprise here is the company involved: INEOS New Planet BioEnergy – a joint venture in Vero Beach. It is being launched with the help of federal and state grants designed to spur the search for new fuels. It was previously reported that U.S. Sugar in Clewiston was negotiating with a Illinois company to make ethanol from sugar cane waste, but that venture is apparently still on hold.
Is this the beginning, as Bronson has stated, of an industry that could grow to 3 billion gallons of ethanol a year and produce 100,000 jobs? One sure hopes so. But there are skeptics who question the competitiveness of ethanol, even if produced less expensively than the current technology using corn. They claim it is less efficient than gasoline (making the economies illusory) and that it can harm engines, especially in the marine field. But proponents say flex engines are being built to use combinations of ethanol and gasoline, and eventually ethanol alone. If the latter can be developed fairly quickly, it would seem Bronson’s optimism is warranted.
What nobody doubts is that if there is a place for ethanol to become king, it is Florida. Things grow here very fast and scientists are figuring out ways to use all kinds of natural bio mass, from wood chips to sugar cane waste and even – as in the Indian River case – garbage, to produce ethanol. Last year, we fantasized about an “ethanol prairie” developing around sparsely populated Lake Okeechobee, bringing a well paying and environmentally sensitive industry to an undeveloped section of the state. It would also bring a source of renewable fuel to South Florida’s doorstep, logically leading to lower prices for the area.
It was reported that the only thing holding up the emerging industry was the decline in gas prices from recent scary highs. Prices are lower now. And if this ethanol exploration proves as effective as hoped, they may just stay that way.