East Tennessee is going to become the center for alternative energy in the nation. At least Congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee’s Third Congressional District thinks it could.

Wamp, along with two other U.S. Congressmen, University of Tennessee researchers, and representatives from the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service participated in a public forum in Morristown recently to discuss biofuels production. More than 150 people came to hear the panel speak about the UT Biofuels Initiative and switchgrass production in Tennessee.

The UT Biofuels Initiative is a research model that proposes the construction and operation of a 5 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol facility in east Tennessee. The principal product of the facility will be Grassoline — ethanol derived from plant material. Unlike traditional corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is made from grasses such as switchgrass, wood chips and other non-food plant material.

Congressman Wamp, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and has been an advocate for alternative forms of energy, explained the impact that cellulosic ethanol could have in Tennessee. “Most cars can be converted to flex fuel vehicles for about $150 and run off a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.” Wamp said that eventually we could replace up to a third of our gasoline with locally produced ethanol fuel.

Kelly Tiller, an agricultural economist and director of external operations for the UT Office of Bioenergy Programs, addressed the timeline for building the demonstration biorefinery. “We expect to break ground on the facility in early 2008, and have the first gallon of Grassoline produced by 2010.”

Representing his home district in Morristown, Congressman David Davis said he supports the Initiative because it will strengthen national security, since it would lesson our dependence on foreign sources of oil from unstable parts of the world.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the farm bill approved by the House in July contains $3 billion to promote biomass energy programs. However, Goodlatte himself did not vote for the final version of the bill because of an added tax increase on foreign investments. He went on to express skepticism that the bill would clear the Senate by the end of 2007.

The success of the biorefinery will depend heavily on a steady supply of switchgrass from local farmers. Clark Garland, chair of Biofuels Farmer Education Programs for UT Extension, presented information on establishing and harvesting a switchgrass crop, as well as on the planned farmer incentive package.

Approximately $8 million has been set aside for the incentive package that will offset the risk of planting an energy crop in advance of an established market for the commodity. The package will include incentive payments and a guaranteed price per ton for the switchgrass.

In addition to the congressional representatives and university researchers, Farm Bureau President Lacy Upchurch and NRCS Conservationist Kevin Brown also participated in the panel.

Overall, the panel outlined a detailed plan that will partner the research capabilities of UT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and private industrial partners together with farmers and landowners in East Tennessee.