Coalition looks at biofuel crops

A new coalition hopes to help plant the seeds for western Colorado farmers to play a role in meeting the nation’s need for clean, renewable energy.

Colorado Mountain College, Colorado State University, the city of Rifle and the nonprofit Flux Farm Foundation in Carbondale have teamed up to assess the ability of western Colorado to produce and process biomass for biofuels and carbon sequestration.

Those entities have formed the Western Colorado Carbon Neutral Bioenergy Consortium. Its first funded study will examine the region’s capacity to produce perennial bioenergy crops such as switchgrass, timothy, alfalfa and even prickly pear cactus.

The Flux Farm Foundation advises farms and ranches in the intermountain West on how to profitably integrate renewable energy and carbon sequestration technologies. The foundation recently received a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and $25,000 in matching funds from CMC for biomass growth trials that will begin this spring in Carbondale, Rifle and Fruita.

Jon Prater, coordinator of CMC’s Integrative Energy Technology Program in Rifle, said CSU will be involved in the studies. CMC’s job will be to take the grasses and other agricultural products that are studied and convert them from cellulose to ethanol. The college is building a processing unit to allow for testing of various biomass fuels.

“One of the unique things about this is rarely do you get a two-year college doing actual research,” Prater said.

He said the goal is to eventually entice someone to build a small processing plant locally.

The city of Rifle has been working on creating an Energy Innovation Center which will showcase solar, biofuel, geothermal and other alternative energy projects. The city hopes to attract companies such as those involved in biomass.

“The potential of locally grown and processed biofuels is in keeping with the city of Rifle’s mission to conserve and maintain the environment while diversifying our local economy,” Rifle’s utilities director, Charlie Stevens, said in a news release issued by the Flux Farm Foundation. “The growth of biofeedstocks could eventually represent an opportunity for local farmers and ranchers to diversify their traditional incomes.”

Morgan Williams, the foundation’s executive director, said in the news release that the goal is to target perennial biomass crops that can be grown on marginal agricultural soils and processed locally,  with neutral carbon emissions. That’s in contrast to bioenergy production on fertile lands in the Midwest, where the process often competes with food production, increases pollution from fertilizers and pesticides and results in negligible greenhouse-gas emissions reductions compared to conventional fossil fuels, Williams said.


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