August 18, 2009

Embracing pond scum

That green, slimy scum that makes swimmers and pool owners cringe may soon grow the High Desert into a hotbed for algae-based biofuel production.

The algae technology can be used to treat wastewater, power military tanks, trucks and planes, clean the air, fertilize the soil — and eventually keep more money in residents’ pockets.

With ample sunlight, open land and a willing workforce, the High Desert is home to a number of emerging pilot projects.

The Victor Valley’s first project is in the works at Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority, where the algae could potentially kill two birds with one stone.

“We’re beyond the if question,” VVWRA General Manager Logan Olds said. “The stage we’re at now is how.”

With electricity accounting for more than $600,000 of the agency’s annual budget — a figure that’s expected to double in the next five years — officials said using algae to generate fuel will lower the cost of the plant’s operations.

“That would benefit businesses and families in the High Desert, who would see their sewer bills reduce,” said 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, also a VVWRA commissioner who’s helping to launch the program.

And since algae feeds off of leftover nitrates and phosphorus, the process could also improve Victor Valley’s groundwater supply and help VVWRA meet state mandates for reducing these contaminants.

The agency’s north percolation ponds, where treated wastewater is released and allowed to filter through the sand back into the groundwater supply, already grow algae inside of them naturally.

Olds said they’ll almost certainly weed this algae out and introduce a species that’s found to be the most efficient and productive.

After a careful process to harvest and cultivate the algae, it is put into a reactor where its oil is squeezed out and converted into fuel. That biofuel can then be burned in regular internal combustion engines to create power.

Olds doesn’t have estimates yet for just how much electricity — and ultimately money — the agency will be able to save quite yet, until he settles on a final implementation plan. And that’s where his trip this week to Virginia comes in, to meet with renowned algae harvesting expert Dr. Patrick Hatcher.

“There is a big race nationally to see who can do this on a large scale,” Hatcher said in a phone interview Friday, with universities and private companies experimenting with different ways to culture, harvest and convert the algae into biodiesel.

As a professor at Old Dominion University, Hatcher is overseeing a 1-acre algae farm that’s producing enough biofuel to run an on-site generator and a fertilizer (from what’s left of the algae after the oil’s been drawn out) that yields three times more tomatoes than any Miracle Grow he’s seen.

Olds plans to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Hatcher this week, so that the two can work together to implement technology the Virginia professor’s team has been perfecting, train his staff and get the project going.

“Ideally this is something I would hope we would be able to pursue and have in place by next summer,” Olds said.

Ultimately Olds said the biofuel project probably has more potential for benefiting private industry in the High Desert, since public agencies are limited in their use of public dollars.

Exxon Mobil, for example, recently chose to commit up to $600 million of its capital to try out an algae-based biofuel project.

The biggest roadblocks to large-scale renewable energy projects may be the start-up costs and getting firms to commit to research and development. Oil and natural gas are uncertain markets, so businesses and development firms may need incentives to move forward, Mitzelfelt said.

The good news: There’s a large amount of state and federal funds up for grabs for renewable energy efforts.

The California Energy Commission has pledged $120 million in grants each of the next to years, and another $23 million is available in federal stimulus funds for green energy job training, Mitzelfelt said.

Mitzelfelt’s office and VVWRA are also working with Victor Valley College and the county Workforce Investment Board to create a new program where students can become technicians working on projects like algae production.

“On many levels it’s a great technology,” Mitzelfelt said, “and it has the potential to create jobs for our region.”

Brooke Edwards may be reached at 955-5358 or at

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