For plutocrat Bill Gates, spending $84 million on something is akin to a shopper 'investing' a wrinkled dollar in a Salvation Army kettle in a fit of yuletide generosity. However, $84 million is still something to ring one's bell about, and that's exactly what Neil Koehler, president and CEO of Pacific Ethanol Inc. did today in celebration of Gates' Cascade Investment's agreement to buy 5.25 million shares of the firm. PE produces ethanol, the corn-based fuel that has been gaining increasing attention as a commercially viable alternative to gasoline, particularly in view of the volatile price of crude in recent months.

Koehler notes that, thanks to the cash infusion from Microsoft's founder, analysts and investors alike are now looking more closely at the potential of this farm-friendly fuel. In other words, Gates' investment not only granted PE the money to construct five new plants on the West Coast, it also lent the ethanol industry tangible credibility.

Stateside, American drivers unwittingly already consume some 15 billion gallons of the stuff annually, as most gasoline contains approximately 10 percent ethanol. Thanks to a healthy 51-cent per-gallon incentive courtesy of Capitol Hill, ethanol can now be had cheaper than conventional gasoline, making it even more attractive to environmentalists and capitalists alike.

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