Rifle about to see a new energy industry | VailDaily.com

Rifle about to see a new energy industry

Heidi Rice
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post IndependentJon Prater, who teaches an integrative energy technology class at Colorado Mountain College's West Garfield Campus in Rifle, discusses the plan to have a plant convert switchgrass into ethanol to use as an alternative fuel.

RIFLE, Colorado – The city of Rifle could be instrumental in developing alternative fuel options by the creation of a processing plant to develop alternative fuel sources.

Jon Prater, who teaches an integrative energy technology class at Colorado Mountain College’s West Garfield Campus in Rifle, thought it would be a good idea to have his classes create a plant that would convert switchgrass into ethanol to use as an alternative fuel.

Prater’s plan has been integrated with a consortium of governmental, educational and community-based organizations, including Colorado Mountain College, Colorado State University, the city of Rifle and the non-profit Flux Farm Foundation in Carbondale, to form the Western Colorado Carbon Neutral Bioenergy Consortium (WCCNBC).

“My thought was to build a working ethanol plant,” Prater said. “The original idea was to build on the process technology program, which is a two-year program,” Prater explained. “We teach people how to operate a wide variety of equipment in fields such as oil and gas, water treatment, food, pharmaceuticals and any industry you can dream up that utilizes process technology.”

A test program

The city of Rifle has bought into the program and is talking about allowing a plot of land to grow the switchgrass as part of the pilot program.

“This is really just a test program,” said Mike Braaten, government affairs coordinator for the city of Rifle. “We’ve been engaged [in the project] because we have an energy park and we have the land to grow the grasses.”

The project has the potential to further several of the city’s goals, including the preservation of agricultural land, the stimulation of the renewable energy economy and the development of a local, self-sufficient energy supply.

The plan is that the city of Rifle would grow the plot of switchgrass at a site adjacent to the new wastewater treatment facility at the west UMTRA site, while Prater and CMC would build the processing plant behind the CMC West Garfield campus.

“Hopefully, the plant will be built and operational for the test grasses by the end of the summer,” Prater said.

City Planner Nathan Lindquist said the city is interested finding out what the viability would be of growing switchgrass as an alternative fuel.

“The whole idea is to get a better understanding of how viable it is to grow switchgrass and convert it to ethanol,” Lindquist said. “Ranchers could grow switchgrass instead of alfalfa.”

Corn is not the right crop

Corn has been used as an alternative fuel to produce ethanol, but Lindquist said it is inefficient and better used as feed for livestock. Switchgrass does not need particularly fertile land in order to grow.

“You can take land that is basically infertile and not used for food,” he said.

The city of Rifle got involved because it had the land in order to grow the test plot of switchgrass and other perennial bioenergy crops such as timothy, alfalfa and prickly pear cactus.

Students at the Rifle campus are helping to design and build the demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol and butanol processing equipment to test the grasses and pretreatment processes. The gas industry donated most of the equipment material, Prater said.

The 7-foot tall, two-stage distillation tower and kettle-style boiler using a 100-gallon propane tank will be located behind the Rifle campus building.

“It’s really quite a neat project with a lot of educational opportunities for our students,” Prater said. “We’ve already brainstormed with students and staff on the best way to approach certain parts of this project.”

CMC leading the way

The project is one of the state’s first bioenergy processing facilities housed at a community college like CMC.

“It’s somewhat rare for a two-year college to be involved in a real research project like this,” Prater said. “If everything goes right and we get a process that works and is economically viable, the city could then entice a company to put in a larger-scale commercial plant. Local farmers and ranchers could then supply the grasses to that company, and the biofuels could be sold locally.”

The project at CMC will provide hands-on training in operating a functional bioenergy processing facility and the development of analytical chemistry skills and techniques through designing, implementing and refining analytical protocols for each stage of the process to assess yields and product purity. Student participants will be involved in the testing and logging results of all phases of the project for final reports.

Eventually, the project is expected to lead to the development of new curriculum and courses that will be offered in certificate and AAS degree programs in energy technology.

According to Morgan Williams of the Flux Farm Foundation, the overall pilot project should cost about $5 million and take about four to five years before the results are available. The WCCNBC is seeking funding from the U.S. Energy Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as other sources.

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