Imperial Valley farms could become a major source of energy if proposals for new bioenergy facilities materialize next year. They could generate both electricity for California's grid and fuel for state motorists. San Diego - based U.S. Farms is studying the feasibility of a building a major bioenergy plant in Imperial County that would make ethanol from sugarcane and possibly electricity from the biomass waste, said Yan Skwara, company president. "The future of ethanol lies with sugarcane and sugar beets," he told Circuit. U.S. Farms has formed a wholly owned subsidiary, Imperial Ethanol, to pursue the project. If a feasibility study demonstrates a business case - an initial study indicates it will - the subsidiary is expected to apply for permits early next year. Skwara said the plant could begin operating by summer of 2008 to initially produce 50 million gallons a year of ethanol. Later, an unspecified amount of electricity and up to 100 million gallons of ethanol a year could be produced. The company would contract with farmers in the valley to produce more sugar beets and begin growing sugarcane in place of vegetables for human consumption, as well as displacing alfalfa and animal feed, said Skwara. Bioenergy firms are finding the Imperial Valley a receptive place to set up shop. Valley farmers are interested because they are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with foreign vegetable imports. Also, an earlier bid to attract dairies from the Los Angeles area lost out to Kern County. U.S. Farms joins a growing list of bioenergy projects envisioned there, including ones planned by Pacific Ethanol and Cilion (Circuit, Oct. 20 2006), and a joint ethanol production?biomass power generation facility proposed by Imperial Bioresources. The Imperial Irrigation District has supported studies for the proposed Imperial Bioresources project. "We want to see all forms of renewable energy move forward," said Rosa Maria Gonzales, Imperial Irrigation District spokesperson. "Biomass production is an important part of that." There are obstacles, however. Producing ethanol from sugarcane is more expensive than from corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But when the fiber remaining is burned to make electricity, the price spread narrows, according to William Maloney, Pacific Western Energy president. Tests in the Imperial Valley also show that sugarcane is more productive there than in the Southeast, according to Ed McGrew, a grower and agricultural consultant in the desert area who once served on the state Agriculture Commission. A University of California at Davis Biomass Collaborative report released earlier this fall confirmed that sugarcane grows well in the Imperial Valley. Growers could combine sugarcane and sugar beet crops to provide feedstock for ethanol and electricity production year-round, the report said. The rush to build bioenergy plants comes as the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that ethanol be added to gasoline in California and across the nation. Since the act passed, California has been burning almost a billion gallons of ethanol a year as a gasoline additive, said Jerry Martin, California Air Resources Board spokesperson. Even if the state does not move from its current 5.7 percent ethanol content in gasoline to 10 percent - as hoped by many ethanol advocates - demand for the additive can be expected to increase along with increasing population and auto use. Most of the ethanol is added to gasoline during the winter, when the extra emissions of nitrogen oxides that it causes do not contribute to summertime smog, according to Martin. However, the season for burning ethanol could be expanded if it is sold as a concentrated fuel. Burning fuel containing 85 percent ethanol, known as E85, eliminates the extra nitrogen oxide emissions, according to Martin. Expanding use of ethanol at this point would be expensive because California now makes only 25 to 30 million gallons a year of the grain alcohol, said Martin. Trains and trucks bring in the balance from the Midwest, where it is made out of corn. Importing ethanol from other states not only costs drivers money but diminishes any potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, said Martin. On the other hand, he said, making ethanol from sugarcane in California would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to those from corn-based ethanol. However, meeting California?s energy needs with crops will compete with food growing. For instance, the UC Davis report indicated that meeting the state's current ethanol needs with locally grown crops would require California farmers to convert one-third of their total 9 million acres of irrigated fields from food cultivation to energy production. Biodiesel would take additional land. The report noted that all cropland in California would have to be converted - and then some - to meet the 20 percent renewable fuel standard envisioned by the California Energy Commission with in-state production (Circuit, Oct. 20, 2006). In the Imperial Valley, farmers increasingly are interested in growing crops that can be used to produce energy instead of food. They face increasing vegetable farming in Mexico and other Latin American nations. Typical is asparagus, which the Imperial Valley used to supply to the nation during the winter. "My story can be told in one sentence," said valley farmer McGrew, who has given up growing asparagus. "U.S. midwinter asparagus cannot compete with Peru and Mexican cheap labor." For many Imperial Valley farmers, in particular, energy crops may be the future, according to Skwara. They are machine harvested and require little labor, and the fuel market is huge and growing.