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Conference observations

Though it may seem the ethanol industry has plenty to worry about with surplus ethanol supplies depressing prices, tight margins and the looming blend wall – one didn’t hear much about those issues at the National Ethanol Conference last week.
By Susanne Retka Schill | February 27, 2012

Though it may seem the ethanol industry has plenty to worry about with surplus ethanol supplies depressing prices, tight margins and the looming blend wall – one didn’t hear much about those issues at the National Ethanol Conference in Orlando last week. Predictably, RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen struck an optimistic tone in his remarks, drilling through the numbers on production, jobs and economic contribution.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke Friday morning, also praising the industry for its role in helping make American agriculture prosper. It really didn’t get interesting, though, until the question period at the end of his brief remarks when he got into the Farm Bill. It will be very difficult to keep the gains made in the energy title of the last Farm Bill. The baseline they work off for the budget only includes programs that were funded every year, but so many of the energy programs needed to have rules written, and thus didn’t get launched right away, and thus aren’t in the baseline. To be funded in the next Farm Bill will require finding cuts in established programs such as crop insurance, conservation and nutrition – not an easy prospect.

Often what is learned in casual conversations or overheard at a conference is as important as the speakers. A cellulosic ethanol developer said the uncertain policy climate has everything on hold. They have several projects that would move forward, if  there were some basic incentives. Cellulosic project development is beginning to move outside the U.S., he says. For one electrical supplier, business is picking up after a couple of slow years. His company picked up a couple of big projects at the NEC. And for one ethanol marketer, the conference was an opportunity to meet with customers. This year, as in the past couple of years, he never made it into the room to hear a single speaker. While I had heard that the rush to make use of the blenders credit before expiration was partly responsible for the present glut of ethanol supplies, he added that supplies have also piled up because of the mild winter. Most years, people expect weather delays and plan accordingly. This year, shipments have moved almost too quickly, adding to the logjams.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this blog about women in biofuels. I’d have to report that in looking over the faces at the NEC, the industry does have a healthy representation of women and people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. While I suspect a lot of ethanol plants hire and train people from the surrounding rural communities, there are a large number of engineering and science-related positions at the plant level and among service providers that show a healthy diversity.

The biggest disappointment in attending a conference like this is in not really being able to visit with all the people you’d like to talk to, nor be able to absorb and retain all the information presented by speakers. But there is something satisfying about meeting people in person, even if briefly.

The next big opportunity comes early in June in Minneapolis, when the ethanol industry will convene again at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop, June 4-7. Planning is under way now, watch for details at www.FuelEthanolWorkshop.com.