Challenges ahead, but bio-fuels promising

Thomas Garcia, Freedom New Mexico

Several obstacles have to be overcome, according to experts, but alternative fuels production could be a viable economic development option for Roosevelt and Curry counties.

Alternative fuels production was the topic of a seminar by New Mexico State extension agents Wednesday at the 16th annual New Mexico Ag Expo.

There are always pros and cons involved with the development of new industries, said Extension Agronomy Specialist Mark Marsalis with the Clovis Agricultural Science Center.

Since 1998 bio-fuel production has increased by 150 percent in the United States, Marsalis said. Bio-fuel plants seem to be looking to this area for development because it is centrally located.

There is one plant in operation in Portales, which is the 30-million gallon Abengoa Bioenergy plant. There is bio-diesel plant that has been constructed but has not begun operation in Clovis, Marsalis said.

On the other side of the coin is the possibility of bio-mass energy production which utilizes agricultural waste products. Already plants are have eyed the Clovis, Portales area as well as West Texas for such plants, according to published reports.

Feedstock production problematic

The seminar focused on the production cost and yields of feedstock needed to operate a bio-fuel plant and some concerns that area residents might have.

One of the main concerns that people have in this area is water. How much water is needed to produce the feedstock for the plant.

The water that is going to be used to grow the feedstock will be more than what will be needed to operate the plant, Marsalis said.

A second concern is what crops are able to be utilized for sustainable production in this area, Marsalis said.

The actual amount of feedstock needed to operate a plant for one year will vary by the crop, Marsalis said.

If the conversion rate was 90 gallons of bio-fuel per ton, then a 30 million gallon plant would need 350,000 tons per year to operate.

That translates to about 35,000 acres at 10 tons per acre, Marsalis said. He says that amount of acreage would be tough to come up with locally.

Another concern is that any land that is dedicated to the growth of feedstock for the bio-fuel plants would take away from the available crop to be purchased by area industries such as dairy.

“Dairy farmers would now be competing to purchase the crop that has been designated for bio fuel production,” Marsalis said. “Corn prices are high as it is for more of the crop to be dedicated to the production of the bio-fuel it might cause some price issues for dairy farmers.”

Marsalis said, that most farmers would not convert their crop production to bio-fuel production because price would be a factor.
“A farmer raising alfalfa could be offered $60 a ton by the bio-fuel plant while they could earn $160 selling it for livestock usage,” Marsalis said.

Marsalis is currently seeking grants to experiment further with bio-fuel feedstock production attempting to find a high seed yielding and a resource usage efficient seed-oil crop.

“We are still learning a lot when it comes to the production of bio-fuels and sources that could be used for its production in this area,” Marsalis said.

Biomass a possible fit

While the agriculturalists wrestle with coming up with a crop fit for the area, others think the best approach is to use what we are already generating to get into bio-fuels — cow manure and agricultural waste.

There is a good and high feasibility for a next generation bio-fuel plant to move in and be beneficial for Roosevelt County, said Greg Fisher executive director of the Roosevelt County Community Development Corporation.

Technology is advancing in the production of bio-fuel from agricultural waste and bio-mass. There is plenty of agricultural production in Roosevelt County that leads to waste that could be used to make bio-fuels, Fisher said.

“A plant that operated on agricultural waste as opposed to corn-based ethanol plants would be better suited for this region,” Fisher said. “It would also mean that dairies in the area would not have to be as concerned with rising corn prices.”

“The farmers could potentially see profits not only from the harvest of their crops but from selling the waste for bio-fuel production,” Fisher said. “There is a concern of how the soil will get nutrients if the waste is removed from the land but in time I think that problem can be overcome.”

This area is well equipped to support a bio-fuel plant that uses bio-mass or waste for production. There are also opportunities to utilize the CRP lands and open range lands, Fisher said.

“We’ve got the land and the farming experience and if there was a demand we can serve it,” Fisher said.