July 30, 2009

An algae alternative

Ignacio - The Southern Ute Indian Tribe's newest investment is going to make it some green.

Green algae, that is.

Solix Energy Inc. and the tribe unveiled the Coyote Gulch Demonstration Facility to a crowd of about 70 people Wednesday morning in what both hope becomes the oil producer of the future.

"When I first heard about it all I could do was say 'algae,'" Tribal Chairman Matthew Box said.

However, algae is just the thing that the tribe and its newest company, Southern Ute Alternative Energy, formed in 2008, want to look at investing in, Box said.

"We started to understand that our (tribal) government needed to sustain into the future, and we needed to have the ability to invest (in alternative energy)," Box said. "Natural gas was here, but more and more we realized relying on it indefinitely was not feasible."

The tribe has been talking with Solix since 2007, and the facility was a result of their talks.

The facility will grow the algae, and then Solix employees will harvest oil created from the algae. The algae create the oil through the process of photosynthesis.

After the oil is harvested, the product then is sent off to gas producers to experiment and perfect turning it into diesel.

The partnership between the two works because of the tribe's investments in alternative energy and also because Solix needed an investor, Solix Chief Executive Officer Doug Henston said.

"We were very excited when they ... told us that they wanted to be an operator in this," Henston said. "This is really the first step in a larger relationship that we hope has a global impact."

If Solix expands, the tribe's Southern Ute Alternative Energy will help to oversee that, said Rebecca Kauffman, president and chief operating officer of Southern Ute Alternative Energy.

Southern Ute Alternative Energy, a component of the tribe's Growth Fund, seeks investment opportunities in alternative energy that are technologically and economically sound. The environmentally friendly investments include opportunities in solar, wind, biomass, biofuels, carbon-capture and energy efficiency.

"We are analyzing different opportunities because not all green is good," Kauffman said. "There is still an impact to the land and the environment, and the mandate (from the tribe) is that it has to have a positive environmental impact overall."

The Solix algae operation is a pilot project, and the intention is to grow the plant if oil can be produced in sufficient quantity and quality for commercial use. Eventually, Solix expects to employ 20 workers.

"We are happy that we are partnered in this effort, and we would like to expand," Kauffman said.

The facility falls right in line with what the tribe is looking for, she said.

Not only does the facility yield oil, but it uses carbon dioxide released by the nearby natural-gas plants to create pure oxygen.

Box said he is excited to see where this facility takes the tribe - and the world - because it has applications beyond oil. It can yield other products such as facial creams, oxygen and food for animals.

"This is a step toward the future, and many who are here now will pass and won't be able to get to see the ... full extent this will hold," he said. "This really has so many more positives, and they are not just oils."

Those who attended the unveiling, including La Plata County commissioners Kellie Hotter and Joelle Riddle, thanked both Box and Henston for their efforts in alternative energy.

"We love having a tribe next to us that is leading the way, and we can only look to follow you," Riddle said to Box.

Kauffman said because the facility still is under construction she isn't sure of its final cost.

Jason Gonzales is a summer intern at the Herald.

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