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Photo by Hummanna. Licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Humans have known for thousands of years that a good or bad crop can mean bounty or death by starvation. One of the many downsides to relying on crops for a feedstock for anything is the volatility that goes with the price. In old days, people hedged against a bad crop by finding ways to preserve food for the lean times. Today when it looks like prices are heading up, big companies lock in prices at what they think will be a low level. Unfortunately, that can come back to bite you when prices go

As expected, VeraSun Energy and US BioEnergy, two large American ethanol producers, have become one. In fact, the just-merged company expects to be the largest producer of ethanol in the United States by the end of this year, producing 1.64 billion gallons of the car-liquor. The newly-formed company is called VeraSun Energy Corporation and holds claim to eleven functioning ethanol plants with five more in construction.

Hey cowboy, got one of those little flex-fuel badges on your truck? If so, you can now fill 'er up with E85 at 20 Kroger gas stations in the Dallas and Houston areas. Kroger and VeraSun Energy announced today that VeraSun's mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (which VeraSun calls VE85) will now be sold at the Kroger filling stations. There's a list of these stations and their addresses after the jump. The 20 new ethanol retail pumps brings VeraSuns national total to over 140 in 13

Let's hold up with that statement for now, because there is a little asterisk in the press release (read it yourself after the break) that anything beyond the 1.6 billion gallon number is "Assuming construction resumes in 2008, which will depend on market conditions." As we all know, the ethanol market is not exactly in the strongest shape it's ever been in these days. With the low prices and product glut and lots of criticism of corn ethanol, I'm sure at least some at the two merging companies

This is not good news for American ethanol advocates: VeraSun is suspending construction at its 110-million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant in Reynolds, Indiana because ethanol prices are too low. This matters more than the shutdown of two biodiesel plants in Texas that we mentioned yesterday. Why, you might ask? Because Reynolds, Indiana is actually BioTown, USA.

Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger also has gas stations at many of their stores. Kroger is now teaming up with VeraSun Energy and Enterprise Rent-a-car to install E85 pumps at twenty of their stations in Ohio and Kentucky. Enterprise has been labeling some of their rental outlets that are located close to E85 pumps as VE85TM/FlexFuel branches.

There are certainly no lack of methods to make your travels less environmentally damaging than they used to be. Here's another option, if you're into ethanol: VeraSun Energy and Enterprise Rent-A-Car announced last week that the two companies will work together to use VeraSun's E85 brand (VE85) in Enterprise's flexfuel vehicles, wherever VE85 is available.

Now we're getting somewhere. And by "we" I mean BioTown, USA (Reynolds, Indiana). While last year we had stories about how this small town in Indiana is trying to grow and make all of its own energy but still didn't have any ethanol pumps (so all the flexible-fuel vehicles in the town were cruising on gasoline), now we can report that the town can soon check off making ethanol from their To Do list.

There has undoubtedly been a lot of noise from both sides of the ethanol argument. Putting it simply, proponents of the biofuel see it as a way to ween the country off foreign oil while critics question its sustainability and energy balance. Friday's news from VeraSun, the nation's second largest ethanol producer, is surely bound to mix things up.

Chart: Google Finance / VeraSun Energy Corporation (NYSE: VSE)

At a Pittsburgh-area Sheetz gas station right about now (the event was scheduled to start at 1:30) six representatives from Sheetz, GM, VeraSun Energy, and the DoE's National Energy Technology Laboratory are fielding questions from the media and just your regular average customer about E85, how it is made and how it can be used. Sheetz, VeraSun and GM have been working in Pennsylvania to make ethanol available at more gas stations for a while, and GM has announced partnerships that have helped o

I wrote Monday about how Pennsylvania is making a big push to get out of their coal history and moving into a greener energy future. Here are a few more details on how General Motors, VeraSun and Sheetz gas stations are working with the state will do this. VeraSun announced that its partnership with GM would provide VE85 (VeraSun's brand-name E85) to three Sheetz stations in the Pittsburgh area. The first shipments will arrive this week to one station, with the two other stores getting the fuel

The market debut of VeraSun Energy Corporation, the second-largest US ethanol producer, raised $419.8m. The shares in the company soared by as much as 30 percent (but are down almost 10 percent today) on their first day of trading. The powerful debut of the alternative fuel producer is clearly a result of the rising oil and gas prices. VeraSun's stock is not the only ethanol producer performing well. ADM, the largest US ethanol producer saw its shares rise more than 85 percent in the past year.