August 21, 2009

Company trying to grow local interest for algae farms

Algae as a crop is probably the only plant material that can replace petroleum-based crude oil for refining into transportation fuels, said an energy resources company CEO who envisions harvesting algae for fuel in southern Nevada.

Gary E. Williams, founder and CEO of Chemtec Energy Services, LLP, headquartered near Houston, Texas, believes algae is the high-octane solution to dwindling crude oil resources and said southern Nevada and the Arizona Strip present unparalleled opportunities for algae-for-fuel production.

Williams presented his business plan to the Virgin Valley Water District Board of Directors Tuesday and was investigating the project’s feasibility.

Chemtec Energy Services produces blending systems for ethanol used by major oil companies and manufactures equipment that adds injection into fuels. The company would be the flagship company in a joint venture business, Williams said.

According to Templar Energy Resources’ executive summary, prepared by Williams, algae’s oil yield in gallons per acre is between 1,200 and 10,000 gallons per acre. Corn yields 18 gallons of oil per acre, sunflowers 102 gallons per acre and palm oil 635 gallons per acre.

Thorny challenges lie in Williams’ path. According to the executive summary, significant volumes of water shall be used to grow and cool the algae in warm weather months.

“For algae production and transport it is estimated more than 20,000 acre-feet of water may be required on an annual basis.” Williams stated in the executive summary, but added, “The water reserves controlled by the company should be able to meet this demand and will be proven during Phase 1 operations.”

A bigger concern may be the amount of land needed to cultivate the fuel crop. Even though algae can be grown on non-traditional farmland, eliminating the fuel-versus-food debate, large amounts of land will be needed for algae farming. Williams is looking for private land in southern Nevada and the Arizona Strip for algae oil farming and large-scale production facilities.

Williams estimated that an area of 16,000 square miles – twice the size of Clark County – could produce enough algae oil to replace more than 60 percent of the entire U.S. petroleum crude oil requirements for transportation fuels.

Additionally, biomass from algae – less the extracted oil – may be sold as a high-value product for animal feed, pharmaceuticals and other uses, Williams said. Algae farming and oil production would employ local residents and build tax base.

Another benefit locally would be the clean agricultural water runoff, said Williams. Agricultural water not reused for algae production may be sold to municipalities or other entities.

Farms would be organized in 10-300-acre pods and would likely utilize an open-trough system design.

Council member David Bennett, Templar’s local liaison, said he met Williams this past year and was skeptical at first about the operation.

“I asked if it was viable,” Bennett said. “It would be more viable when gas is $5 a gallon versus $1 a gallon. This is a good, green viable way of producing jobs.”

“I don’t want to be in the refining business,” Williams said. “I have no plans to build a refinery in this area. This product would be tied to bio-refineries. We’d build them where people want refineries.”

Williams said he’s had conversations with people on the Arizona Strip and with the Moapa Band of Paiutes who said there might be 25,000 acres of land available for algae production.

“We’re not asking for anything at this point,” Williams said. “We’re only showing our intentions. I’m not saying we have all the water lined up. My potential partners are going to want to know where’s all the land and where’s all the water from the Arizona Strip all the way down to Las Vegas.”

He said his operation would not echo the controversy stirred by Wind River Resources’ plan to export water from Beaver Dam Wash to Mesquite because the water would be used in Arizona. Water from the operation would be a by-product Templar could sell.

“If you’re providing the water for production it would be better for us to utilize the water than let it run down the river,” said board member Bubba Smith. “What kind of water quality is going to be left after (algae oil) extraction?”

“Real high-quality water,” Williams said. “We expect to meet certain expectations.”

Williams said he wanted to make it clear that algae oil production “would never fly” if it was confined exclusively to the Arizona Strip. He admitted, “the marketability for algae oil is still not there, but it will be.”

Current plans call for Templar to partner with Solix Biofuels in Fort Collins, Colo., “a leader in the field of developing commercially viable algae oil technologies,” according to Templar’s executive summary.

Should everything proceed according to plan, build-out of the first algae farms would be accomplished “on a farm strategically located in the Arizona Strip on the Virgin River near the Nevada border,” stated the executive summary.

But Williams remained cautious. “We have to get answers before we ever put the first shovel into the ground,” he said. “We’re looking for a technology break-through and getting production costs down.”

No comments: