The Power of Illinois: Wind Energy, Ethanol and Other Biofuels

September 19, 2008

By Martin Ross

In farm fields, along rural interstates and deep beneath the earth, it is plain to see: Illinois has energy to burn.

For many, thoughts immediately turn to the 13 million acres of corn raised by Illinois farmers, much of which is turned into ethanol used to fuel our vehicles on a daily basis. And it’s true; the biofuels industry is alive and well in Illinois.

Neal Steffey can testify to it. He makes ethanol, along with the more than 30 employees of Lincolnland Agri-Energy in the Southern Illinois community of Palestine.

From windmills to biofuels, Illinois has power to spare.

“The ethanol plant has brought good jobs to the community,” he says. “It also brings a better market for local corn farmers. Lincolnland is a clean, efficient operating facility producing a product that provides cleaner air for the environment.”

Lincolnland, which sprouted on the Crawford County landscape in 2004, produces 49 million gallons of corn-based ethanol annually. Its contributions to the 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol produced last year in the United States help decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and increase the support of American farmers.

But to Steffey, the small-town ethanol plant represents many things just as vital – community, survival of the farm lifestyle that shaped his upbringing and independence for an energy-hungry nation.

From windmills to biofuels, Illinois has power to spare.

A Mighty Wind

Among the many acres of corn, wind turbines are quickly becoming part of the Illinois landscape.

Consider the Twin Groves Wind Farm in McLean County. On the windy Bloomington moraine in the eastern part of the county, passersby will now see a landscape of tall, gently rotating turbines. Standing in a collection on private farm properties, these 240-foot-tall, windmill-like turbines offer 396 megawatts of wind energy – enough to power 118,000 homes for a year.

Fuel For Thought

Yet Illinois contributes to energy demands in even more ways.

Travel through Southern Illinois, and you’ll likely see oil pumpjacks in use, tapping into the state’s some 650 oil fields. According to the Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois is home to more than 30,000 active wells.

Additionally, biodiesel plants are targeting truck and bus companies making the switch to fueling their diesel fleets on soybeans, recycled grease and even waste fats from livestock and meat operations.

A source of energy that’s long been an Illinois mainstay, the state’s coal reserves contain more BTUs (energy units) than Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti oil reserves.

According to the Illinois Coal Association, more than 32 million tons of coal were produced by the 17 coal mines across the state.

All in all, coal generation accounts for nearly half the electricity used in Illinois.

From windmills to biofuels, Illinois has power to spare.

Good For the Economy

In addition to environmental contributions, the rise of numerous Illinois power options has contributed to local and state economies.

The Twin Groves Wind Farm in Bloomington contributes royalties to more than 140 landowners and has created more than 35 full-time jobs, with some 350 more during construction.

The ethanol industry alone has contributed more than $1 billion to Illinois’ economy.

As U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development (RD) state director, Doug Wilson has helped foster energy enterprises in a number of communities. He cites estimated returns of at least $4-$5 for every dollar RD invests in a new ethanol plant.

Beyond local construction and plant jobs, ethanol production benefits “supporting businesses,” Wilson adds. “Supporting businesses include the local Dairy Queen or the QuikStop – all the businesses where people coming to and from the ethanol plant may stop.”

Like most Americans, Steffey has felt the strain of high oil and gas prices. His family and friends stayed close to home in 2008, many purchased smaller cars or motorcycles to save on gas and he is spending less money in restaurants.

“I feel a lot of people think we swallow up all that corn and turn it into fuel, but that’s not the case,” he says. “I don’t think they realize how much higher gasoline would be without ethanol. If ethanol were taken out of the fuel supply, food prices would be just as high or higher, because transportation of food is the big driver of price increases.”

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