December 18, 2011

Investing in a green revolution

Southern Ute Tribe sets sights on clean energy, to invest millions to develop oil from algae

La Plata County’s billion-dollar tribe is looking to the future of energy to keep its wealth secure.

“This is not going to pay us back next week or next year,” said Bob Zahradnik, director of the tribe’s far-reaching business arm, the Growth Fund.

About 93 percent of the tribe’s annual wealth and profits each year comes from “conventional energy,” or natural gas and oil, he said. But as the nation sets its sights on cleaner, greener energy for the future, so is the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

One of four major investors in Solix Biofuels, a company focused on developing algae-based energy production systems, the Southern Utes, tribal officials said, are investing in technologies they hope will change life economically and environmentally for their “grandkids,” Zahradnik said.

Diving into a new cutting-edge technology means longer wait times to see profits on investments, including the millions of dollars tribal officials have funneled into Solix in recent years. But they think they’ve found a way to make a little cash in what Zahradnik called “a very tough sector of business” that’s highly secretive as the industry remains years away from unlocking the technology that could make fuel from algae a viable consumer product.

Recent industry advances have led to successful refining of algae oil and the first plane flight using an algae-blended fuel, but Solix officials said algae fuel has not yet successfully been put into cars, and it is a long way from being an affordable solution for consumer use.

“We are really making an effort to see what else we can do with those algaes,” said Lewis Abrams, business development manager for Solix.

They have narrowed their focus for now to an algae strain that is found off the northern coast of Scotland that so far seems to thrive in the sunny but erratic Southwest Colorado climate at the Solix facility on the Southern Ute reservation, he said.

“This strain seemed to overcome our obstacles here,” Abrams said.

Animal feed, food and vitamin supplements and agricultural products are among the most promising and potentially profitable uses for the algae strain they’re growing, Abrams said.

They also have positioned the company to bring in revenue through the sales of multiple algae-development systems that other energy entrepreneurs, researchers and colleges can use to conduct their work in algae technologies.

Solix’s smaller systems, which help developers test and narrow algae strains for bigger production and research efforts start at $50,000. Their product prices increase with the size and scale of their production systems, reaching a top price for the firm’s largest system of more than $500,000.

Solix and tribal officials tout claims that the systems produce among the highest algae yields in the industry, allow for genetic modification of strains, and prevent the “colony collapses” and contamination issues that require researchers to start anew mid-project and are common in pond-based algae production techniques. They said Solix is among the few algae-driven companies with systems that “can actually produce oil quantities.”

It means Solix and the tribe could be selling the systems that will eventually help unlock the secrets of success in algae-based products of the future, including a renewable fuel source for passenger vehicles.

Solix is working to provide “the platform” from which others can develop new algae strains, uses and technologies. A few universities and even the Department of Defense already are using or plan to use Solix’s technologies, officials said.

It also opens the door to ensure that as viable and profitable algae uses are developed, Solix could be ready to jump into full production using that new knowledge and its production systems.

“We hope to be one of the companies in full-scale production when the technology warrants it,” Zahradnik said.


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