Energy Independence: From Crop to Tank
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
Energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric have a long way to go before they can begin to replace our energy consumption derived from oil. So aside from locking up our cars in the garage, what options are we left with?
One local group believes that biofuels may be at least part of that answer. Hal Holder, Joel Lundquist, and Rick young are all Rocky Ford farmers and co-owners of Big Squeeze, LLC a biofuel production facility here in our own back yard. And although most such projects are either concept projects only or tied to some nameless government or corporate entity, Big Squeeze is actually accessible by anyone with a diesel engine.
The concept is pretty simple. The Big Squeeze facility has presses and centrifuges that yield oil from plant seeds than then can be combined in a four-to-one ratio with diesel and used in everything from cars to tractors and industrial generators. This reduces the use of fossil fuels by eighty percent and attacks some other issues along the way, such as global warming, water shortages and in-state economic development.
I talked with Dr. Perry Cabot, a Water Resources Specialist in the Colorado State University system, about why this seems like a good idea. Biofuels, he explained, include anything that is considered a renewable resource that can yield usable energy.
“Biofuels are considered ‘carbon neutral’ with respect to CO2 emissions (i.e., CO2 produced during combustion is offset by CO2 used during photosynthesis to grow biofuel crops),” says Dr. Cabot. So although CO2 is released in the process, the idea is that the same amount will be re-absorbed by the plants grown for your next use.
But what about water? In a state where we’re already fallowing land so water can be used in growing urban settings, how can we think about expanding our farming?
“In desert climates, we’re always shooting for ‘more crop per drop,’” says Cabot, “Ethanol from corn takes a fair amount of water (24 inches or more) and the energy balance is tough to pin down. Some reports have documented substantial net-positive direct energy balances, while others contend that ethanol production is an ‘energy negative’ situation (takes more energy to produce than is contained in the final product).”
It should also be noted that the byproduct left after the oil is squeezed out is perfect for livestock food at feedlots. Ever seen a cow munching on a petroleum byproduct? Didn’t think so.
But crops like winter canola, which is ideal for diesel-based biofuels, use much less water than corn or other common crops. In fact, using limited irrigation techniques, Cabot suggests that farmers can even use land temporarily fallowed due to the sale of water rights to grow winter canola. This is where water wonks like Dr. Cabot come in, working with the farmers on irrigation plans, and striving for the ideal seeds that yield more canola with less water.
Cabot believes that such ideas can allow farmers in other arid climates grow valuable crops on land they have not been able to farm before due to lack of water storage or transfer. This could include economically struggling economies such as those in sub-Saharan Africa or other arid parts of the United States.
One argument against biofuels is that they impinge on land already being used for edible food, and when the product they yield is more valuable as a fuel, those depending on the crops for sustenance are out of luck (i.e., the poor and those living in developing countries). This is where using a low-water crop is particularly value, says Cabot. Ideally, the process adds arable land available to farmers, increasing their overall production rather than trading one for another.
Dr. Cabot acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect, but that it’s a critical step toward our collective goal of energy independence. “I like quote General George Patton,” he says “who used to say that ‘a good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.’ So, until electric cars really come on line, or algae biodiesel bears out, we need something that will keep the trains moving, keep interstate commerce going, and keep tractors running so farmers can farm.
“I think oilseeds are the ‘good plan today’ that will bridge us to the newer generation of fuel that we’ll see in the next 20 or 30 years. So, my end goal is to increase the demand and production of oilseeds in Colorado, in tandem as an energy solution coupled with a water solution.”
So do we just drive up to the Big Squeeze facility with our diesel car and fill ‘er up? Not just yet, says Cabot. “Oilseed cropping, particularly canola and sunflower, is practiced in numerous regions of the Arkansas Valley,” he says. “There are ongoing variety trials in Rocky Ford (Otero County) and Walsh (down in Baca County). There is also a growing interest and some cropping of canola and sunflowers down in Lamar (Prowers County).”
The reason, Cabot says, that growth of such crops is increasing is specifically because farmers know they have a facility like Big Squeeze where they can have their oilseed processed. “Historically, the lack of crushing facilities in the area has stifled interest in using these crops for fuel, he says. “But now, with (Big Squeeze) in Rocky Ford and the expansion of the Colorado Mills facility in Lamar, the seed can be crushed locally.”
Basically, those interested in using such fuels contract with farmers to lease a certain acreage it is estimated will be needed to fulfill their energy needs for the coming year. This lease converts to credits at a biofuel co-op that can be cashed in at the time of fill-up. Currently, there are no local stations that the average Joe or Jane can access, but Cabot hopes this will change in the near future.
For more information, read a recent article on the Big Squeeze and CSU’s collaborative efforts: http://tinyurl.com/3dkn3mz.