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Feeding frenzy no longer

Explosive growth in the biofuels industry has cooled, reducing once optimistic numbers for careers in renewable energy. But that doesn’t mean opportunities don’t exist.

In June 2007, the biofuels industry was enjoying a huge surge in growth. An AURI-sponsored study revealed the potential for thousands of jobs in ethanol and biodiesel. The Russell Herder marketing firm of Brainerd, interviewed representatives of nearly 80 renewable energy enterprises throughout the Midwest.

But shortly after the analysis was completed, biofuels operations faced double trouble. The cost of primary feedstocks — corn and soybeans — soared to historic levels, partially driven by increased demand for biofuels. Record energy costs also squeezed the industry, tightening margins.

“We used to see new biofuels projects announced on virtually a weekly basis,” says Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association director of research. “But market forces, availability of credit and other factors have had the effect of slowing down what was an extremely rapid rate of growth.”

An updated biofuels-industry analysis by Russell Herder in September 2008 found that career opportunities still exist, but the climate has changed.

According to the report, lack of funding for new plants has caused some layoffs and decreased demand for new talent. That eased workforce problems for some plants that had difficulty attracting enough talent, while others report losing qualified employees because of economic uncertainty in the biofuels industry.

Biofuels advancements, however, open up some career opportunities. New technologies, such as gasification or cellulosic conversion to biofuels, will require specially-trained employees. Opportunities are also likely to move outside traditional agriculture as woody biomass, grasses and other nontraditional crops become renewable-energy feedstock.

Industry leaders still expect that by 2015 the biofuels industry will create nearly 250,000 fulltime jobs in all related sectors as the industry matures.

“Biofuels are not the answer to all of our domestic energy challenges – but they are part of the answer,” says Duane Kristensen of Chief Ethanol Fuels in Hastings, Nebraska. “This is an industry that is not going to go away.”