Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sunflower scheme drops biodiesel for edible oil

When an renewable-energy activist turned entrepreneur approached farmers in rural Dolores County, Colo., about growing sunflowers to fuel a bioenergy revolution, they saw it as a chance to reverse the county's 14 percent unemployment rate, highest in the state. Five years and one serious downturn in the biodiesel market later, the jury is still out on the success of the project i Dove Creek, Adam Burke of National Public Radio reports.

As federal subsidies for biodiesel dried up, plant developer Jeff Berman had to change his philosophy. Instead of creating commercial-grade biofuel, the plant would use the flowers to make food-grade sunflower oil. "To survive, we had to make some changes," Berman told NPR. "If we had insisted on building our biodiesel plant, then we would not be here." The shift wasn't easy for Berman, who was looking to start a green revolution, NPR reports, but the company has been able to hold onto its renewable dream by using seed stocks to create almost a third of the electricity and heat needed to run the plant.

Berman hopes the plant will eventually become the first always-on hybrid renewable plant in the country. To finish it and pay farmers for last year's crop, he has been shipping sunflower seeds to the Midwest at a loss, Burke reports, and San Juan Bioenergy has produced just 15 tankers of oil since January. Dove Creek is certainly no worse off that it was five years ago, Burke writes, but the future of sunflower energy could go in two vastly different directions. Local farmer Grant Allen tells Burke: "Sunflowers could bring us farmers down, just as much as it could bring us up right now." (Read more)

When The Durango Herald reported on San Juan Bioenergy's plan to use sunflowers to create biodiesel in July, the outlook was rosier. "This isn't cow country. This is sunflower country now," a local cafe owner told Shane Benjamin. The bioenergy plant had brought 15 new jobs, and farmers were generally reporting larger yields from sunflowers than from traditional crops. U.S. Rep. John Salazar even stopped by to hail the plant as "the correct way to bring economic development throughout rural America." (Read more)

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