Local biodiesel about to flow
San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative closes in on local production of fuel

Rick Jarvis fills up his tank with biodiesel at the Exxon Corner Store at 18th Street and Main Avenue on Monday morning.  The recently formed San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative is looking to grow and process the fuel regionally starting as soon as this summer. The project will be funded jointly by several entities, including the City of Durango, La Plata County, Wolf Creek ski area, Durango Mountain Resort and School District 9-R, which will use the fuel in fleet vehicles./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Will Sands

The gas tank is getting progressively greener in the Four Corners area. The San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative has made huge strides toward the beginning of grassroots production of the alternative fuel in the region. With continued momentum, the cooperative could break ground on a local processing facility as early as next summer.

The idea for the San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative was hatched last year by Jeff Berman, then executive director of Colorado Wild. At the time, Berman was working with area ski resorts to get more biodiesel in their fleet vehicles. That idea led to a group of biodiesel fleet managers, area farmers and renewable energy proponents getting together in early February. That meeting led to the formation of the cooperative.

“The San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative is a true cooperative effort between farmers, diesel fleet owners and the community at large to determine if we can grow seed crops, press them into oil, blend that oil with diesel and sell it as biodiesel locally,” Berman explained.

Currently, most of the commercial biodiesel in the area is a 20 percent biodiesel/80 percent diesel blend called “B20” that comes from Iowa by way of a company called Blue Sun. Growing the crops in Southwest Colorado and processing the fuel locally would have numerous benefits, according to Berman. Such a facility would create local jobs, area farmers would benefit from a new, viable cash crop, and the price at the pump would also drop. On a global scale, biodiesel burns cleaner than traditional diesel, offers better mileage than gasoline and is based partly on a renewable resource.

“The cliché fits perfectly. I think it really will be a win-win situation for the Four Corners,” remarked Greg Vlaming, president of the San Juan Biodiesel Cooperative.

The first piece of the board’s business was to direct Berman, now working as a private consultant, to conduct a feasibility study on whether biodiesel seed crops can be grown and the fuel can be processed in Southwestern Colorado. The results of the study have been overwhelmingly positive. First, a test crop of seed oil grown in the Dove Creek area this summer yielded exceptional results.

“The test crop was higher than our highest projections for the best year possible,” Vlaming noted. “As far as pure poundage of yield, it exceeded our best projections.”

Early investigation into the location of a prospective processing facility has also been positive. Currently, the cooperative is considering a site near Dove Creek in Dolores County.

“We do now know that we plan to build the facility in the vicinity of Dove Creek because of proximity to storage for the crop and favorable real estate prices,” Vlaming added.

However, a couple of crucial unknowns must still be resolved before the Four Corners area closes in on producing its own fuel.

“We need to determine the ownership structure because that dictates various funding opportunities,” Vlaming said. “We also need to determine size of production facility. It’s actually easier to start bigger than to have to add on later. Those are really the remaining key issues right now.”

Ownership structure could be especially sticky for the cooperative. Even though early results indicate that a plant could produce between 3 million and 5 million gallons of biodiesel per year, there will probably not be enough blend to go around. Durango Mountain Resort, Wolf Creek Ski Area, the City of Durango, La Plata County and School District 9-R have all pledged support to the facility. Diesel fleet owners have also been one of the cooperative’s major motivators. With all of these interests waiting in line, there is a good chance the public will never see a drop, according to Vlaming.

“There’s a strong likelihood that the public will never get access to this product,” he said. “The diesel fleet owners and some of the other interests involved in the co-op might buy it all up.”

In January, the cooperative’s board will meet and resolve remaining issues. Under a best-case scenario, ground would be broken on a regional biodiesel processing facility next summer. During that same time, area farmers would sow their fields for seed oil. Given completion of the facility and a strong crop, local biodiesel could begin flowing as early as 2007. •



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