Can producers meet ethanol demand?
An Iowa farmer pulls a corn planter behind his John Deere tractor. With the increase in demand for alternative energy, some farmers have elected to switch to growing corn to produce more profitable ethanol fuel.
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Kai Ryssdal: You remember ethanol? Not too long ago it was the way this country was going to wean itself off imported crude. In 2007 Congress set hard targets for how much ethanol refiners would have to blend in with their gasoline. And it was a lot too -- 11 billion gallons this year, nearly 13 billion next year.
Most, if not all, of that ethanol was expected to be corn-based. And that helped unleash a flood of money into what was then a budding ethanol industry. As Adam Allington reports NOW from KWMU in St. Louis, the current investment forecast for ethanol is drought.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Mitch Robinson looks out over 300 acres of prime Mississippi River bottomland near Cape Girardeau, Mo. It's wet and fertile, a great place to grow corn. In 2007, this site was slated to be part of a new ethanol industry in the area.
MITCH ROBINSON: There were plans at one time going on for four ethanol plants that would have been in a 25 mile radius. And after we had four identified, people kept calling and saying, 'We want to come look', and we kept telling people 'You're too late.'
Robinson works for a regional development group in Southeast Missouri. At the time, cheap corn and high gas prices were driving a rush of investment in corn ethanol here and across the Midwest.
Robinson says those four refineries would have added hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the region's economy. But they never got past the planning stage.
Robinson: We have to kiss a lot of frogs to locate projects. And it was unfortunately one that we put several years' worth of time and effort into, and it didn't turn out.
Interest in ethanol has all but dried up last year as corn prices shot up and investment crumbled under the weight of the recession. Dozens of refineries either went bankrupt or never broke ground.
Alex Moglia runs a corporate restructuring firm in Chicago with lots of clients in the ethanol industry.
ALEX MOGLIA: Many of these ethanol plants were built on a hope and a prayer completely dependant on market demand and commodity price fluctuations.
Given those fluctuations, Moglia says producers can still lose a ton of money if they misread the futures market on corn.
Corn is currently trading just over $3 a bushel; roughly half what it was at this time last year but still higher than it was before the ethanol boom.
Moglia questions whether enough refineries survived the shakeout to meet the new federal ethanol target, let alone triple production as the government would like by 2022.
Many biofuel advocates are pinning their hopes on next-generation energy crops like switchgrass and algae.
But not everyone is ready to close the book on corn.
MARK BEEMER: There has literally been no investment in genetics of switch grass.
Mark Beemer is the CEO of Alternative Energy Sources in Kansas City. He says substitutes to corn ethanol are still years away from large-scale production.
BEEMER: When you compare that to the corn industry, where Monsanto, SynGenta, Pioneer are investing $1 billion in corn genetics to increase yields, it's almost laughable that everyone wants to talk about switchgrass.
The economics of corn ethanol could also change: The Environmental Protection Agency is considering raising ethanol's gasoline blend requirement from 10 to 15 percent.
That increased demand might be enough to trump investor fears over volatile corn prices.
In St. Louis, I'm Adam Allington for Marketplace.