The Power of One

By By H. Tony Hartmann | August 19, 2009
When biodiesel burst onto the national radar earlier this decade it was the 'next big thing' in the world of biofuels. Ethanol had blazed a luminous trail and the road seemed obvious for bold, home-grown energy entrepreneurs. Just stake out your soybean fields, raise $20 to $30 million and get out your shovels-not.

Of course we thought the $1/gallon blender's credit would make up for any short-term feedstock differential between crude petrol and virgin vegetable oil. Hurricane Katrina helped more than a little by putting Americans over a barrel, of petroleum that is. Maybe we could do this after-all with $0.35/lb. 'RBD' soy-oil. That was nixed too.

Reality set in. And by now, most of us think we know the rest of the story. But a funny thing happened on the way to bankruptcy court, and someone forgot to tell the hobbyists, on-farm producers and home-brewers. If anything, their numbers have increased. Here in Wisconsin, or "cheese-country," we've discovered that there is more to this than just a penny or two at the pump. Energy independence means procuring your own raw materials locally, and refining without the help of the lengthy, cut-throat, commercial supply chain.

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue reported earlier this year that approximately 100 'Blenders Reports' were coming in each month, with checks for $4, $7, and sometimes as much as $11.50. This is in accordance with state law, as there is a 2-cent-per-gallon 'tank inspection fee' on all fuels consumed within the state. This made the State's Office of Energy Independence (OEI), charged with helping facilitate Governor Doyle's 20 percent renewable energy by the year 2020 goal, curious.
"We've always been supportive of the state's small-scale producers," says Maria Redmond, an alternative fuels specialist with the state. "But now we're really trying to reach-out and encourage their efforts. Every local gallon is renewable."

Earlier this year the Wisconsin Biodiesel Association's not-for-profit arm, the Green Diesel Wisconsin Foundation, replied to Redmond's request for proposal and was granted $40,000 for a 12-month program of education and outreach aimed directly at the backyard crowd. The Foundation immediately hired Robert Brylski, a former million-gallon-a-month commercial producer with Sanimax Corp., to head up the program.

"We've been teaching people small-batch production through the state's technical college system for several years now," says Brylski, who is also a trained chemist. "I think the self-reliance aspect is what really catalyzes this crowd. Well-the potassium hydroxide does too."

The program kicked-off just last month with what was supposed to be press conferences in multiple locations. But there was another interesting phenomenon going on here-Brylski and the Foundation found out that their constituents don't particularly care for the limelight. In fact, if you bring the TV cameras you can count most of them out.

"We kept trying to set things up on the farms and in the garages of the folks we thought were shining examples of how to produce quality fuel safely," he says. "But one by one they were ducking back into their garages and barns. No one wanted to be a poster boy-or girl-for the program." In fact, the harder he cajoled and prodded, the harder they resisted.

"We learned something important in this," Brylski says. "We need to capitalize the 'I' in 'energy independence' and respect people's desire for a low profile. Even though the government supports what they're doing, they're still leery of regulation."
Farmer, feedstock producer, home-brewer and long-time renewable fuels advocate Jamie Derr of Marshall, Wis., puts it this way: "I think a low-key, rolling start to this program is the best approach. If the state wants to tally up the home-grown gallons, they're going to have to come in with some carrots and make sure to keep any paperwork to a minimum."

Small-scale ethanol is also encouraged in the state's outreach program with support for a recent workshop by Alcohol Can Be a Gas author David Blume, at Madison Area Technical College. At $270 per person there were no empty seats for Blume's two-day workshop on how to make and use ethanol at home. Brylski has also seen growing interest in small-scale, on-farm ethanol production using non-traditional crops such as cattails and crop wastes.
Many small-scale producers are drawn in by co-product streams, and the options small-scale production facilitates. "Meal quality and livestock feed flexibility are added benefits when pressing your own beans for oil for fuel feedstock," Derr adds. "In some ways it's a 'Back to the Future' model of farming."

The Wisconsin Farmers Union, which has been holding renewable fuels workshops since 2006, indicates that it has also seen an uptick in interest for home distilling though much of its early work was focused on biodiesel.
For more information on the Wisconsin Small-Scale Producer Program, visit

H. Tony Hartmann is CEO of Great Lakes Ag Energy, a bioenergy project development and consulting company. Contact him at or (608) 215-4446.
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