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As the dangers of our nation's dependence on foreign oil become more apparent, we continue the search for viable sources of alternative energy. Last year, Congress established a 7.5 billion gallon ethanol mandate which will help reduce our foreign energy dependence. Many automakers are also manufacturing vehicles that can run on ethanol-based fuel. In the next step toward energy independence, South Dakota can play a leading role. In addition to corn-based ethanol, we must also focus on cellulosic ethanol that can be made from corn stalks and switchgrass grown in South Dakota.

Because eastern South Dakota was once home to the tallgrass prairie, our state can easily be regarded as the Saudi Arabia of biomass energy. Presently, South Dakota consists of three types of grasslands: tallgrass prairies, mixedgrass prairies, and shortgrass prairies. Tallgrass prairies have the greatest potential of becoming a viable energy source because they include a species called switchgrass. In South Dakota we have a great opportunity to produce ethanol from this grass and most of our land where regular row-crops are grown can support this native grass. It is very plausible that our state could grow and harvest millions of acres of these grasses.

Switchgrass and other perennial grasses that were common on the tallgrass prairies are native species that evolved to endure pests, diseases, drought, and winter stresses that are common to the Northern Great Plains. These grasses can also be grown on land not suitable for corn or soybeans. Native grasses are also great habitats for wildlife and help to prevent erosion. If producers decide to plant grasses instead of traditional row-crops, the relative price of row-crops may also increase. At the same time that farmers are receiving a better price for their corn and soybeans, they will supply a new alternative renewable energy source that will reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Research is still being conducted on the process of converting switchgrass into ethanol at South Dakota State University and other institutions across the country. Since research into switchgrass-based ethanol lags behind corn-based ethanol, Congress should bolster this research by supporting the Sun Grant Initiative and the Department of Energy National Laboratories.

Iogen, a Canadian-based company, has already built a demonstration plant in Ottawa, Quebec that can produce over one million gallons of ethanol per year from 40 tons of feedstock per day. They have also conducted research on ethanol made from switchgrass and cornstalks. Producing this ethanol is more expensive than the present forms because it is conducted on a small scale. Corn stalks, oat and barley straw, sugar cane fibers, and hard wood chips are also possible sources of cellulosic ethanol.

South Dakota should be the epicenter of this next stage of the renewable fuels revolution. Our farmers could benefit from producing these new sources of energy and South Dakota consumers could save money at the pump due to this promising alternative energy solution. Research needs to move forward, production processes need to be perfected, and the commercial promise of these products needs to be promoted.

At a time of rising fuel costs, we need to actively support alternative fuels research, such as the $8.3 million in Sun Grant funding I secured for SDSU last year, to ensure South Dakota's leadership in the alternative fuels movement. With corn-based ethanol becoming an even larger part of our economy and the hope of alternative ethanol forms for the near future, our state will benefit greatly as our country becomes more energy independent. If we hesitate to make this investment now, future generations may be even more dependent on foreign energy.