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South tries to emerge as biofuel breadbasket

TIFTON, Ga. (AP) — The brightly painted vehicles lined up outside the Southeastern Bioenergy Conference seemed like they were built to run off of a suburban grocery list.

There was the newspaper delivery car that runs on corn. The sedans that run on peach and watermelon juice. And the gleaming tractors fueled by peanuts, poultry fat, soy and cotton.

All were on display at the annual convention, which attracted hundreds of biofuel entrepreneurs, industry analysts and government officials looking for ways for the Southeast to emerge as a rival to the Midwest as the nation’s biofuels breadbasket.

“There’s tremendous potential for Georgia and the Southeast to become a hub for alternative fuels,” said Bill Boone, the director of Georgia’s Agriculture Innovation Center and one of the conference organizers. “People are out there looking for a place to invest their money. The question is how we deal with them.”

The three-day conference tries to provide them with an answer.

At information sessions, scientists touted fuel blends they hoped could prove both economic and efficient, while state agencies explained to venture capitalists how they could apply for tax breaks and grants. Bands of investors ventured through rows of tables and listened to pitches from environmental lawyers, bureaucrats and startup companies on how best to spend their money.

Centered in Midwest

The nation’s biofuel market has long centered on the Midwest, where corn growers make up the backbone of a mature ethanol industry. But as technology yields new ways to extract energy out of biomass — from wood chips and sawdust to fruit waste — the South sees an opportunity.

“We’re moving from the Grain Belt to the Biomass Belt. And the Southeast in general has a lot of biomass potential,” said Jill Stuckey, Georgia’s director of alternative fuels.

Southern states have already shown signs of opening their arms to alternative fuels, spurred in part by gas shortages after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina led to a sharp rise in fuel prices.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue pitched a plan this week to create a corridor of alternative fuel pumps along Interstate 75 and recently announced a $225 million venture to build the first wood-based ethanol plant in the state.

Mississippi now offers up to $6 million in incentives to ethanol or biodiesel plants built in the state, while Tennessee’s governor has supported spending $70 million of the state budget to develop alternative fuels.

Alabama is switching its fleet of vehicles to run on ethanol, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has set stringent emissions standards to try and force companies to seek energy sources beyond oil, natural gas and coal.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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