By Tom Still

MADISON – President Bush’s declaration that America is “addicted to oil” was paired with a pitch to produce more alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, in the nation’s grain belt. It’s unclear whether Wisconsin can overcome a late start to become a leading ethanol producer, but the broader idea of using genetically engineered plants to create fuel, fiber, plastics and chemicals may be a long-term boon to the state’s rural economy.


The war in Iraq and a near-doubling of gasoline prices have rekindled interest in alcohol fuels – particularly E-85, a blend that is 85 percent grain alcohol and 15 percent gasoline. However, it’s nearly impossible to find the fuel outside the Midwest and relatively few vehicles are equipped to burn it.


Even in Wisconsin, there are only two-dozen service stations that sell E-85. On the production side of the equation, Wisconsin is home to just a handful of ethanol production plants, although several more are planned or under construction. All in all, Wisconsin represents just a fraction of the nation’s ethanol production – and total ethanol production in the United States consists of just 95 plants yielding 4 billion gallons. That is only enough to replace 3 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline burned in the United States last year.


Does that mean Wisconsin should turn its back on ethanol? No, but policymakers and citizens alike should keep expectations in check.


It will be years before enough ethanol is available to lower pump prices by replacing significant amounts of gasoline, which is a world commodity. It will also take Detroit automakers years to produce enough E-85 burning vehicles to matter – and for service stations to gear up for the change. Many people may want a “flexible fuel vehicle,” but they’re not likely to part with their conventional cars until they can afford to make the switch.


Wisconsin farmers cannot stake their future on ethanol alone, but there is considerable promise in a much broader range of bio-based industries.


“Bio-refining could produce a mega-paradigm shift, and it’s my hope Wisconsin’s research base can help us leap-frog technologies into the future,” state Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen said during a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council.


The state Ag Department is directing the Consortium on Bio-based Industries, an initiative aimed at promoting the kind of innovation necessary to turn forest products, row crops, grasses and cow manure into fuel, fiber, plastics and chemicals.

Examples include extracting energy from wood chips before they are turned into paper; using methane digesters to harness energy from cow manure; turning corn into clothing that is soft, fast-drying, colorfast, chlorine resistant and resilient; and using genetically engineered plants to produce a variety of plastics, packaging materials and even pharmaceuticals.


The combined commercial potential is vast, and gains are already being realized in some industries.


“Major players are getting into bio-refining and I think that speaks more loudly than perhaps anything else,” Nilsestuen said. “As this industry matures, there will only be more spin-offs, new technologies and products.”


Consider Madison’ Virent Energy System Inc., a start-up firm focused on extracting hydrogen fuel from sugars and glycerin. The company recently announced it had developed the ability to deliver electricity to the power grid by using biomass-derived fuels. “This is the first time anything like this has been demonstrated,” company president and CEO Eric Apfelbach said.


Wisconsin will not live on ethanol alone. But it may find a new economic future in a combination of bio-based industries.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.