At the dawn of the nation's ethanol industry, they called him the "Ethanol Answer Man."

In the 1980s, Larry Johnson, a farmer from Cologne, Minn., hit the road on behalf of the state and agriculture groups to tell motorists, mechanics, reporters and farmers why it made sense to turn corn into motor fuel.

Later he helped find investors, often farmers, for many of Minnesota's 21 ethanol plants, arranging and making presentations at hundreds of meetings across the state.

Johnson, 68, eventually gave up farming, and for more than a quarter century has worked full time in the industry he helped build, mostly as a consultant. In June, the industry honored him with its High Octane Award for that work.

Recently, the Answer Man sat down with the Star Tribune to talk about the industry today.

QHow is the ethanol industry doing?

AIn an overall picture, the industry is stronger than it's ever been but currently there is a lot of concern about our corn crop. Processing margins right now are right at break even. The price of ethanol at one time followed the price of gasoline. Now it is following the price of corn. If the price of corn goes up and the price of ethanol does not go up, the plants lose money and some of them will probably shut down until margins improve.

QSome people in Washington say developing new energy sources should be left to the free market. What's your view?

AI am a lifetime Republican, but the government needs to have a role in developing new energy because it is in the public interest. Private investors are often looking for short-term profits and are uncomfortable with the risk of new technology in an emerging industry. To develop an energy industry it takes R&D and it takes market development. The best example of this is the ethanol industry. It started with government financial assistance. Today it gets none and we can produce ethanol from corn cheaper than we produce gasoline from oil.

QWhat's the future of making ethanol from non-food, or cellulosic, material such as corn stalks?

AI think it is inevitable. Several plants are under construction right now. A 200-bushel corn crop has about five tons per acre of corn stalks. I believe we can remove three tons of those stalks, leaving two tons on the land allowing us to actually increase the organic matter of the soil. Removing this corn stover will facilitate no-till, eliminating expensive tillage that degrades the soil and contributes to the loss of carbon and organic matter. It's really exciting, because we can utilize a product that doesn't have much value and replace nonrenewable energy with it.

QOne Minnesota ethanol plant has converted to producing an alcohol called isobutanol. What do you think of that shift?

AIt is a good thing. They are still making fuel from corn, a renewable feedstock. Isobutanol is a product that directly replaces gasoline, and it complies within the federal Renewable Fuels Standard as an advanced biofuel. I think it will be a very good complement to ethanol production and it is still going to benefit agriculture.

QWhy is the industry pushing to boost regular gasoline from E10 to E15, or 15 percent ethanol?

ABecause we have reached saturation with ethanol replacing 10 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States. It is absolutely critical to go beyond E10. Nobody is going to invest in the industry for cellulosic ethanol or anything else when we don't have a market. Currently our market is limited to 10 percent blends, which is less than 14 billion gallons in the U.S. and our production capacity is already there.

QWhat will the ethanol plants of the future look like?

AThey are going to evolve, and transition from just being dry mill ethanol plants to biorefineries that produce many products from corn and biomass. Products such as oil, plastics, petrochemicals, new food and feed proteins, nutraceuticals and fibers will reduce the reliance on ethanol as the profit driver.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090