According to the RBC Cash Index, consumer confidence tumbled to an all-time low in early January. Economists cite several factors for the dismal outlook:
Hiring practically stalled in December, pushing the unemployment rate to a two-year high. The meltdown in the housing market is depressing home values. Harder-to-get credit has made it difficult for some to make big-ticket purchases. And energy prices continue to rise with no end in sight.
Proponents claim home-grown renewable fuels play a pivotal role in easing America's pain at the pump. So far the dominant player in the alternative fuels arena has been corn-based ethanol. But a recent study has bolstered the case for biomass. In fact, the research suggests switchgrass yields more than five times the amount of energy it takes to produce and process into fuel.
The research, conducted in three Midwestern states, showed 300 gallons of ethanol could be produced from one acre of the perennial grass using varieties normally planted on pasture land. Current production techniques allow biorefiners to pull 350 gallons of ethanol from one acre of corn.
The authors of the study also believe residue from the distillation process could be farmeused as fuel for power generation at the refinery but there was no word on how cost effective the practice might be. Previous research, funded in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, concluded switchgrass could be used to replace up to 10 percent of the coal used in boilers at electric power plants. Unfortunately, the power company was unable to pay farmer's enough to cover their production costs. But work has begun on new plant varieties expected to have higher yields which could potentially increase the farmers return on investment.
Officials at the Renewable Fuels Association, or R-F-A, hailed the study as underscoring the feasibility of producing cellulosic ethanol. Research by the R-F-A, an ethanol promotion group, indicates only 15 billion gallons of biofuels can be produced from corn before there is an adverse effect on the grain market. With a federal mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, cellulosic ethanol may be the answer to filling the gap.