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As gas prices continue to rise, Alliance eyes ethanol production

With gasoline prices hovering near $3 a gallon, consumers, including a small group of business people from Harrison County, are looking for alternatives. Ethanol may be an answer.
‘Ethanol can be made from almost any product of starch content,’ said Edward J. Wilkinson of New Albany, who addressed the Harrison County Independent Business Alliance Inc. last Wednesday afternoon.
The most common starch product is corn, but sorghum and barley also can be converted, he said.
Members of the Alliance are researching the manufacturing of ethanol and hope to find at least 50 farmers in the area who are interested in pursuing production of the product.
Wilkinson’s knowledge about the gas of the future dates back at least to 1987 when he helped convert an abandoned distillery into an ethanol plant.
‘I’ve put one (plant) together, hired the people and operated it,’ he said.
Wilkinson suggested to 16 people attending the HCIBA last week to ‘not blow all your money,’ but rather bring in dozens of investors.
As long as the price of oil remains at $41 or higher per barrel, the production of ethanol is feasible, he said.
Someone is finding it worthwhile, as 10.7 billion gallons of the product are being produced worldwide, according to Wilkinson. Brazil is one of the leaders in ethanol use, he said.
The Hoosier state is beginning to climb on the bandwagon.
‘Indiana is embracing the ethanol movement,’ Wilkinson said, with five plants at various stages of operation scattered throughout the state.
‘Four hundred million gallons of ethanol a month is now being produced,’ Wilkinson said, which is about 12 times more than was being pumped out when Wilkinson started in the business.
At least in this area, gasoline alternatives are difficult to find. But Wilkinson said that’s about to change, especially now that General Motors and Meijer are teaming up to make an ethanol mixture more readily available.
E85, a fuel mixture that contains 85 percent ethanol, is expected to be available at the pumps in the near future, he said. The E85 typically sells for 40 cents to 50 cents less a gallon than traditional gasoline.
Even with the increased number of ethanol plants, Wilkinson said there will still be naysayers who contend it’s too costly to convert from gasoline to ethanol.
‘That’s baloney,’ he said. ‘It cost about $200.’
And, Wilkinson said, the newer vehicles are being manufactured to use regular fuel or the E85.
Another advantage of ethanol is that it burns cleaner, unlike gasoline which contains MTBE (methyl t-butyl), a carcinogen, Wilkinson said.
‘Ethanol reduces emissions … , burns cooler and more complete; toxins are reduced by 13 percent,’ he said.
Farmers are usually encouraged by the production of ethanol, too.
‘It provides (the farmer) with another outlet for his grains and increases the price for his grains,’ Wilkinson said.
As the members of the HCIBA asked Wilkinson more questions, they learned that he would not recommend an ethanol plant producing less than five million gallons a year, ‘unless you’re doing it as a hobby,’ he said.
The location of a plant should have rail service available or be located close to a major waterway for transportation of the product, Wilkinson added.
Jim Heitkemper, who farms near the Elizabeth area, said he would like to operate a small ethanol plant on his property ‘just to show everyone that it can be done.’
‘We’ve got to do something,’ said Heitkemper, who also serves as a Harrison County commissioner.
The Harrison County Independent Business Alliance is open to locally-owned independent business owners, including local franchisees, in areas of retail, restaurants, service and media, home-based and self-employed business owners such as artists, beauticians, farmers, foresters, consultants, doctors, dentists and lawyers. Community non-profit organizations and members of the community are also welcome to join.
For more information about joining the HCIBA or to learn more about getting involved in the production of ethanol with the group, call 738-5225.