Ag community hopeful that biodiesel plant will bring new prosperity
The saffron sunflowers that garnished the makeshift stage outside Dove Creek, Colo., on Sept. 8 represented more than beauty or even prosperity.
They were symbols of a better, cleaner energy future – a vision that Dove Creek’s much-heralded biodiesel facility is designed to help bring about.
“I am truly, truly pleased to be here today because this is the marking of a new era for Western Colorado,” said U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-Manassa) at the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant. He said the facility represents a step toward lessening the United States’ dependence on oil.
“I certainly would want to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,” Salazar said, “and I can assure you if we want to win this war on terror, we have to become energy-independent. We do this by devaluing oil and encouraging other nations such as China to become energy-independent.”
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter also came to the groundbreaking, which drew about 200 people from around the region. He spoke of the importance of the project to area farmers.
“This groundbreaking is very much a part of our economic-development strategy for rural areas in our state,” Ritter said. “It’s so important to a state like Colorado that we pay attention to the agricultural industry. It’s the thirdlargest industry in the state, but unfortunately it operates at a very slim margin.”
Biodiesel is an alternative diesel fuel produced using regular diesel (usually about 80 percent) and oil from plant sources such as canola or sunflower seeds. It will burn in regular diesel engines and is much less-polluting than regular diesel.
Four years ago, the idea of a biodiesel facility in Dove Creek seemed like wishful thinking. But a confluence of one family’s generosity and one man’s vision led to the reality.
Dennis McMahon, chair of the Dolores County Development Corporation, told the crowd that a few years ago, members of the Weber family wanted to donate a 10-acre tract to the DCDC for an industrial park, “and we’re all sitting on it right now.
“We sat around a couple of years and scratched our heads and wondered what we were going to do with this piece of ground,” McMahon said, “and lo and behold, there came Jeff Berman out of nowhere.”
Berman, of Durango, became manager for the biodiesel project. He sketched out a rough plan, and Dove Creek Mayor Jay Allen planted 85 acres of test crops of sunflowers in 2005. That year a feasibility study, funded by many entities, was begun as well.
“This really set a precedent as a community-based event,” Berman told the audience.
Allen’s test crops did well. Allen tried three varieties of sunflower in 2005, with an average total cost per acre of around $53, plus a one-time cost for some equipment.
Yields averaged 1,280 pounds per acre. With a projected purchase price at 11 cents per pound, Allen’s harvest would net him a profit of $88 per acre — compared to gross incomes on wheat and beans of around $50 per acre or less.
By 2007 there were 11,000 acres of sunflowers growing on 41 different farms in the Dove Creek area.
“Next year we’re hoping to contract 25,000 to 30,000 acres,” Berman said. The year after that, the goal is 60,000 acres within a 200-mile radius. “We want to move up to 2.5 million gallons of oil (a year) to be turned into biodiesel,” he said.
The number sounds impressive, but the United States consumes some 56 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year, half of which comes from foreign sources. Biodiesel fuel, ethanol and other plantbased fuels will never put much of a dent in the nation’s ravenous appetite for fuel.
“Every gallon of soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, used fryer oil, beef tallow and just about everything else in the U.S. would only offset 15 percent of the diesel consumption in the U.S.,” Berman admitted to the Free Press in a previous interview, “so while biodiesel offers some solution it is not the whole solution.
“The No. 1 solution is still efficiency.”
But the production of biodiesel holds promise for many reasons, supporters believe, not the least of which is providing farmers a more profitable crop than beans or alfalfa. Though canola and soybeans don’t seem feasible to grow in Southwest Colorado, sunflowers have done well. The oil produced can be used in food as well as biodiesel — oils such as sunflower and canola oil are becoming highly popular for cooking.
And the facility itself will create 15 or so jobs, a significant boost for Dolores County, where 37 percent of workers travel out of the county to work.
According to Berman, a comprehensive study done by the National Renewable Energy Lab in 1998 found that biodiesel has an energy balance of 3.2, meaning producers get 3.2 units of energy out of biodiesel crops for every 1 unit of energy put in. That’s compared to 1.3 or 1.4 at the most for ethanol.
“We hope with the plant we are looking at to achieve a much better energy balance by having a number of efficiencies built in,” Berman said. “We plan on dehulling or partially dehulling sunflower seeds and using those hulls in a biomass-based boiler unit that would create the steam we need for our process rather than relying on natural gas.”
The entire project will entail constructing two buildings, Berman said – a seed-crushing plant and the biodiesel plant. Those will be built in Phase 1, and the sunflower seeds from the 2006 and 2007 crops will be crushed.
The biodiesel fuel produced will be available for sale at a competitive price to school districts to run their buses, to farmers for cultivating the next year’s crop, and so on.
“So this really becomes a circular, sustainable model,” Berman said.
An electric turbine will be installed to generate the electricity needed to run the plant, he said.
Also, an anemometer on the Frasier Elevator in Dove Creek is measuring wind speed to see whether wind power can be incorporated into the project during Phase 2. “We can turn the turbine down when the wind blows and when it doesn’t blow we turn our generator back up,” Berman said.
No longer will the project be San Juan Biodiesel, it will be San Juan BioEnergy, he said, reflecting the project’s broad scope.
There are about 43 investors so far in the project, which will cost $4 million to $5 million for construction of the two buildings and running the initial co-op, Berman said. Additional funds will be needed for operations and planning.
“These are not huge corporations,” Berman told the crowd Sept. 8. “These are individuals who see the value and the potential in a facility such as this.
“This is an opportunity for all of us – not only for renewable energy, not only for food production, but especially for the agricultural community.”
Berman said he received encouragement from Ritter’s support for renewable energy.
“When I first heard Governor Ritter speak about the new energy economy, I was just blown away,” Berman said.
“I feel that Colorado is really stepping forward as a leader in new energy economy in the U.S. and throughout the world.”