Editor's note: Beginning with this issue, Farm Press Publications launches an ongoing series of articles on bioenergy. In future installments we will explore the potential for replacing much of our fossil fuel use with energy we can produce from the rich soils and fertile minds of farmers, researchers and industrialists. We'll look at opportunities for various crops in biodiesel and ethanol production and at the ways farmers and ranchers may add value to operations by building co-op energy plants and by using fuel they grow themselves on their own operations. And we'll explore the many research projects geared to increase efficiency of biofuel production.

One has only to contemplate the rapidly rolling numbers on the service station pump to understand the need for a reliable, affordable, domestic energy supply.

Over the past few months motorists have paid more than $3 a gallon for fuel to get them to work, to markets and to even more critical locales such as hospitals. And folks who drive for a living, long haul truckers, for instance, have been hammered by high energy costs.

As have farmers, ranchers and others involved in producing and transporting food and fiber.

The cost to heat and cool homes and businesses also has risen precipitously over the past two years. And we're paying higher prices for anything, which is pretty much everything, we use that requires energy to manufacture or market.

Most days we may not acknowledge it and we may not act like it but the country faces an energy crisis that threatens to alter our way of life and possibly our national security.

We are much too dependent on nations that either don't particularly like us or are too unstable to rely on for too much of our energy supply. At least part of the solution to this national dilemma can be found within the top few inches of our soils instead of far below it in oil deposits.

Our rich, abundant farmland, our production technology and our knowledgeable farmers hold the keys to reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans serves as a reliable substitute for petroleum-based diesel fuel. And ethanol from grains and potentially from cellulose, offers an alternative to gasoline.

Energy from the wind and the sun also may heat and cool our homes, run our stoves and power our lights.

Biodiesel, according to the United Soybean Board, is the fastest-growing renewable energy source in the country, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Soybean producers, through a soybean check off have helped grow the number of soy biodiesel retailers and distributors from about 450 in 2002 to close to 3,000 today. And the number continues to increase almost daily.

Those efforts also helped increase the number of farmers using biodiesel to one in two. The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) figures show 50 U.S. biodiesel manufacturers in operation with another 50 planned.

Demand for and production of renewable fuels is “expanding fast,” says Bob Deneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. “We have 101 ethanol plants in operation with another 42 under construction,” he says.

Those plants currently account for 5 billion gallons of ethanol per year with the 42 coming on expected to add another 3 billion. “Three years ago, we were just above 2 billion gallons a year,” Deneen says.

“We've doubled production in three years. We will double again in five years.”

It's been a slow ride to get this far. “It took us 13 years to get the first 1 billion gallon output and another 10 years to get to 2 billion. That's 23 years to reach 2 billion gallons. The growth rate since has grown exponentially.”

Deneen says renewable fuels production is a key component of the U.S. energy policy. Currently, ethanol is a component of 40 percent of the nation's gasoline. In California and several other states, every gallon of gasoline contains ethanol.

“Two years ago, there was no ethanol in gasoline in New York; now it's included in 100 percent. The market growth has been remarkable. The $70 per barrel price for oil plays a big part,” Deneen says. “But U.S. consumers also want a clean, renewable, domestic energy source.”

Most ethanol comes from corn, 1.6 billion bushels of grain last year from an 11 billion-bushel corn crop. “That's 12 percent of U.S. corn production,” Deneen says. “In 2006, ethanol will take 2 billion bushels of corn and will surpass exports as the second largest user. And 15 percent of the grain sorghum crop will go to ethanol production.

“No value-added market comes close to ethanol.”

Renewable fuels give a shot in the arm to rural economies as well. Many of the ethanol plants already in production are farmer-owned cooperatives, giving producers additional profit opportunities further down the line than they usually go with grain markets. Plants provide jobs, expanded tax bases and a reason for area youth to stay put.

“We've seen a brain drain in rural communities the past few years,” Deneen says. “Renewable energy brings young people back to high paying jobs.”

He says the added income provides better schools and improved services for communities.

Potential for ethanol use, he says, is considerable. “We have a 140 billion gallon gasoline market. Currently, we're producing 5 billion gallons of ethanol and that could double and triple to 15 billion gallons, but we can do more than that.”

He says aggressive research programs will increase potential for ethanol production and improve efficiency. Cellulose plants likely will come on line and then “the sky's the limit. We can get to a point where ethanol is more than just an additive to gasoline and will become a replacement.”

He says in addition to providing an affordable domestic energy source, ethanol helps improve air quality and may help reverse climate changes. “Using 2 billion gallons of ethanol is like taking 1 million cars off the road,” Deneen says.

“And it's a national security issue. Energy security is absolutely critical and we can reduce our need for (energy) imports.”

He says renewable fuel offers “no panacea for the next few years but can in the future if we do the work today.”

Efforts begun during the oil crisis of the 1970s, he said, paved the way for current renewable fuel production. “What we did then to develop renewable energy is responsible for the success we have today. If not for those early initiatives we would not be where we are. We can't be complacent now. This industry will continue to grow.”

He expects ethanol production to expand across the country. Most plants currently operate in the Midwest Cornbelt but are expanding into Colorado, Texas, New York and the Southeast. “We'll see more of that.”

He says plants go in where there is a reliable source of raw material. “Anything that contains sugar will make ethanol. When research allows us to produce from cellulose, we will expand even more.”

Deneen says renewable fuel production, in rural areas across the nation, reduces potential for energy supply disruptions similar to the one following Hurricane Katrina, when many refineries along the Gulf Coast were shut down.

Renewable fuel production will be scattered across the country and local disruptions will not create a big impact on supply.”