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Hemp has untapped market as biofuel

“We’re looking at this as an energy crop,” Ford said. His company, which is planning to build energy plants to process biofuels, has looked at sweet sorghum but doesn’t think the yield would be profitable enough. Instead, he has turned to hybrid sugar beets, which will give him sugars that can be turned into ethanol, plastics and flavorings.

But the advantages from hemp would be exponentially greater, Ford said, because hemp oil from seeds could be used for aviation fuel and biodiesel. Other parts of the plant — such as the “hurds” from the woody middle of the stalk — could be used for cellulosic ethanol.

Ford said the biomass also could be blended with Kentucky’s high-sulfur coal to “green” it up.

“We’re working with coal companies right now on a strategy for post-mining land use to add value to the land and create jobs,” Ford said.

He said he is working on potential ways to use reclaimed mine land to produce the crops that could then be blended with the coal to create a “value-added” product for power plants that need to reduce their emissions without sacrificing energy-producing capability.

On Feb. 11, Ford spoke at a pro-hemp rally in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, the same day that the state Senate Agriculture Committee passed Senate Bill 50 to create a framework to license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted.

Ford said he is encouraged by the support of Kentucky’s federal legislators, including U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, for either passing a bill distinguishing hemp from marijuana or granting a waiver to let Kentucky test the viability of hemp.

Ford planned to testify at the Kentucky House Agriculture and Small Business hearing Wednesday morning on the hemp bill, but the prospects are uncertain.

Ford, whose background is in economic development and Republican politics, said he hopes to bring a new aspect to the discussion Wednesday.

The market for hemp fiber and hemp foods has generated a lot of discussion, Ford said, but “the biggest opportunities are transportation fuel and power generation.”

His company is developing integrated energy parks that could use coal, natural gas, solar energy and bioenergy together, co-firing coal and biomass.

“I’m for coal, for mining more coal,” Ford said. “This is not about picking and choosing. … It’s for integrating natural resources for doing things better. This is about helping coal in Eastern Kentucky. We can be even more competitive by blending coal and biomass, creating value. I’m an energy guy.”

The coal companies see it as potential vertical integration, he said: They could grow the biomass on land that has been mined, then blend it with their coal.

All energy companies are looking for ways to meet federally mandated renewable-fuel standards that require increasing amounts of ethanol and other biofuels to reduce the amount of imported petroleum and greenhouse gas emissions.