State looks at grasses, grains, wood products to produce fuel

FRANKFORT — If Kentucky could develop a full-scale system to produce grasses, grains and wood products for conversion to transportation and power-plant fuel, it could pump $1.3 billion or more into the pockets of farmers and woodland owners, a state official said Wednesday.

There are obstacles to putting such a biomass and biofuels industry in place, but it also represents a great potential opportunity, members of a task force studying the issue said.

"We certainly see the project as something very, very important to agriculture," said Mark Haney, who operates a large apple orchard in Pulaski County and is president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau.

Betty Williamson, president of the Kentucky Woodland Owners Association, said landowners also are excited about the potential to sell low-grade timber as a fuel, getting income from something that now has little value.

A task force on biomass and biofuels development appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear held its first meeting Wednesday.

The task force is to study the state's capacity to produce biomass and the potential demand for turning it into ethanol and fuel for electricity plants, and evaluate what would be required to develop such an industry.

Beshear asked the panel to report to him by Nov. 30 and recommend legislation on developing the biomass industry.

Mandates to use more renewable energy sources in making transportation and power-plant fuel are driving the increasing demand for biomass, Frank Moore, biofuels director for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, told the panel.

If the state doesn't develop its own capacity to produce biomass and turn it into fuel, it will have to import renewable energy, Moore said.

"We have to move to biomass," Moore told the panel.

Kentucky is not blessed with abundant solar or wind-energy capacity, said Len Peters, secretary of Energy and Environment Cabinet, who co-chairs the task force with Roger Thomas, executive director of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy.

Moore said biomass has advantages because it can be grown in every Kentucky county and is sustainable if managed properly. It has the potential to be a bigger source of agricultural revenue in Kentucky than the state's signature horse sales, he said.

There are many hurdles to developing a large-scale biomass and biofuels industry in Kentucky, including issues such as storing and transporting material that is bulky and not very dense, how to process it for use in power plants, and the need for incentives to boost development of a biomass industry.

"The challenge is the funding that's provided to get this process started," Thomas said.

There also is a concern over using land to produce fuel rather than food, and how that could impact food production and prices.

But Moore said he thinks the state can produce the millions of tons of biomass needed annually without hurting agricultural production.

Peters also said the move to biomass is not aimed at replacing coal. Coal will continue to be a part of the state's energy portfolio for many years, Peters said.

However, "Biomass is going to be very, very important as we move forward," Peters said.

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