Carbondale on biofuel production frontier
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A consortium of governmental, educational and community-based organizations, loosely based in Carbondale, believes it has a partial solution to the nation’s energy problems.
And that solution offers a glimmer of hope for the agricultural sector of the western Colorado economy, which is increasingly threatened by the twin pressures of energy exploration and residential sprawl.
An organizer of the Western Colorado Carbon Neutral Bioenergy Consortium, Morgan Williams of the Flux Farm Foundation in Carbondale, said recently that the consortium’s goal is to plant crops, termed “biomass,” which are high in “bioenergy,” grow well in the arid western high country and will not compete with food production.
The term, “biomass,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy, is defined as “any plant-derived organic matter available on a renewable basis, including dedicated energy crops and trees, agricultural food and feed crops, agricultural crop wastes and residues, wood wastes and residues, aquatic plants, animal wastes, municipal wastes, and other waste materials.”
Among the crops mentioned in a statement about the consortium are switchgrass, orchardgrass, alfalfa, wheatgrass, tall fescue and opuntia prickly pear cactus.
Williams, speaking recently to the Garfield County commissioners, remarked, “We’re moving away from corn-ethanol” because using corn for biofuel competes with corn’s use in food production efforts.
Current bioenergy production, according to the consortium, focuses on farmlands in the Midwest, and “competes for fertile land with food production, while increasing pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and often resulting in negligible life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions reductions over conventional fossil fuels.”
In a meeting with the commissioners on Feb. 8, Williams told them that research indicates there are 4.25 million acres of crop lands in the region, a third of which are irrigated and which historically have accounted for $260 million worth of agricultural activity annually.
“The growth of biofeedstocks could eventually represent an opportunity for local farmers and ranchers to diversify their traditional incomes,” the consortium statement concludes.
So far, Williams told the commissioners, there has been little national emphasis placed on “intentionally produced biomass crops.”
Besides its focus on growing biomass on marginal lands, according to documents provided by Williams, the consortium supports the use of “small, regionally located or mobile bioenergy refineries,” that would produce the biofuels across a broad area rather than in concentrated, large-scale facilities.
“We’re not proponents of large, centralized processing facilities,” he told the commissioners .
Williams said the consortium has begun its work with a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and $25,000 in “matching funds” from private sources.
The money has been used, in part, to set up test growing plots in Carbondale, Rifle and Fruita.
A processing facility is being planned for Rifle that could convert the “biomass” into “biofuel,” Williams told the commissioners .
That facility, he said, could be part of what he characterized as a push to use western Colorado’s “underproductive farmland” to help the nation achieve production of 36 billion gallons per year of biofuels by the year 2022.
That, according to the consortium’s literature, is the goal of the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, which became federal law in 2007. The U.S. reportedly produced only a third of that goal, 11.1 billion gallons, in 2008.
Williams told commissioners that the overall pilot project should cost roughly $5 million and take five years before reliable results will be available. He said the consortium is seeking funding from the U.S. Energy Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among other sources of support.
The commissioners unanimously consented to send a letter of support for the project and to permit the consortium to add the county’s logo to the group’s roster of supporting partners.
Other entities in the consortium include Colorado State University, Colorado Mountain College and the city of Rifle.