Crist presses Legislature to spend more on alternative energy plans

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 12:20 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist is asking the Legislature to greatly expand funding for alternative energy, proposing $50 million in new spending and tax incentives for ethanol and biodiesel projects.
In all, Crist's proposed budget suggests the state spend $68 million on alternative energy funding. The proposal extends $17.5 million in grant programs from the current fiscal year and offers nearly $1 million for a public education campaign on energy efficiency.
''Florida can become a leader in the production of alternative fuels,'' said Crist spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus. ''We must empower industry to make Florida the center of biofuel production. Increased ethanol production will further stimulate Florida's economy and create additional jobs.''
Ethanol is unlikely to be the silver bullet of the nation's energy dependence problem, however, as it cannot fully replace gasoline. And currently, cars running on an ethanol blend get poorer gas mileage. Experts say ethanol can be beneficial when combined with other efficiency measures like higher fuel economy standards in car.
Going beyond Crist's proposal, the House is looking at $100 million in alternative energy funding - with $60 million of that going toward ethanol, said Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, chairman of the House Committee on Energy.
''We really want to get Florida up and running as an ethanol-producing state so that it has its mark on energy independence,'' Allen said.
Last week, President Bush called for a huge expansion in ethanol production to reduce America dependence on foreign oil. But critics say ethanol alone will not be able to wean the U.S. off foreign oil, and encourage more aggressive policies.
Many experts say Florida is well-positioned to become a leader in converting biomass materials, including sugarcane, citrus waste and even yard waste, into ethanol.
There has been a growing call to find ways to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, much of which comes from unstable or hostile places like the Middle East, Nigeria and Venezuela.
Ethanol, alone, is unlikely to solve that problem. A recent University of Minnesota study, for example, found that if all the corn grown in the country were turned into fuel, it would offset just 12 percent of the gasoline used in the nation.
A benefit of ethanol is that it produces more energy than the process of making it, giving it a net energy gain, unlike gasoline, which produces less energy than is required to make it. But still, ethanol only has a net gain in energy of 25 percent to 40 percent, according to recent studies.
Ethanol helps cut carbon monoxide in winter but can raise smog levels in summer, air pollution experts say. Ethanol releases more nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog, and evaporates more easily than gasoline, adding other air pollutants. Another problem is that it gets poorer mileage. For example, a Consumer Reports study found that a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe running on an 85-percent ethanol/15-percent gasoline blend got 27 percent fewer miles to the gallon.
Even those in the ethanol industry acknowledge their product is a small part of a bigger battle toward energy independence.
''This is really just a drop in the bucket,'' said Paul Hauck, manager of technical services for United States Envirofuels LLC. ''The biggest way to achieve energy independence is to have higher efficiency autos, smart communities. It's going to take a whole redesign of our way of life.''
The incentives and tax breaks in Crist's proposal could eventually help companies like Hauck's, which is focusing on corn ethanol but also has the capacity to produce sugar-based ethanol, and is looking at other biomass materials in the future.
''From our perspective anything that would help reduce the element of risk to the investor community would be helpful to our projects,'' said Paul Hauck, manager of technical services.
An ethanol plant the company is building will be able to produce up to 44 million gallons of ethanol a year, but with Florida consuming 8.6 billion gallons of gasoline a year, it would take 20 plants to turn all gasoline into a 10-percent ethanol blend, Hauck said.

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