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Silt Mesa man proposes a different energy vision

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

SILT, Colorado – A former gas industry worker is now pursuing a different vision for the county’s energy future – turning agricultural products into fuel.

Carl McWilliams believes that Garfield County can diversify its economy by growing biofuel crops and processing them in a local refinery.

He lives on a 10-acre parcel of land on Silt Mesa that he hopes to use as a pilot farming project, with several plant species in mind. He said sugar beets and Jerusalem artichokes can be processed into ethanol or butanol for gasoline-powered vehicles, and pennycress, a seed-oil plant, can yield biodiesel.



He believes these plants would be suitable to the local climate and could form the foundation for a renewable source of biofuels grown by local farmers.

McWilliams said he has connected with a manufacturer of small, mobile refineries, Mcgyan Biodiesel in Minnesota. Mcgyan’s refinery models could be suitable for Garfield County, he said.



In conducting research and contacting potential allies for the biofuel crops proposal, McWilliams connected with professor Cole Gustafson, who is working along similar lines at North Dakota State University.

“It’s very much research-oriented,” Gustafson said of the North Dakota program.

Gustafson told the Post Independent that he hopes to begin processing “energy beets,” a specific type of sugar beet, into biofuel within a couple of years. He said the plan is to produce butanol, a high-quality fuel that can be burned directly by automobiles.

He said McWilliams’ ideas for sugar beets and other biofuel crops in Colorado are worth further exploration.

McWilliams is hoping to get funding from local, state and federal sources to cover the costs of starting a local biofuel farming and refining industry.

He has applied for a $121,000 National Science Foundation grant, and is hoping to convince the Garfield County Commissioners to commit to spending $7 million from the county’s $22 million oil and gas mitigation fund.

Garfield County officials are not sure McWilliams’ ideas are either promising or appropriate for county involvement.

Sugar beets and pennycress might be good sources of biofuel, said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, but installing a local refinery would be costly and difficult.

“We’re not in the agriculture business,” Martin continued. “It’s just outside the scope of what Garfield County does as a county government.”

Proposes CMC partnership for airport land

Early in December, Garfield County government sought bids for a five-year lease of 48 acres of fenced ground at the southeast corner of county airport property southeast of Rifle.

McWilliams has suggested the county lease the land to Colorado Mountain College for $1 a year, giving CMC’s existing biofuels program a place to grow biofuel crops.

Nancy Genova, vice president of CMC in Rifle, said the college has yet to see a formal proposal from McWilliams.

“I have not met with him,” Genova said. “I’d be interested in sitting down and talking with him.”

She noted that the school already is working with Colorado State University on a biofuels program, based on switchgrass as the main crop. “We’re looking at other things that we might do,” she said.

Although she is not sure the college is ready to approach the county as a partner of McWilliams, with an eye toward leasing the 48 acres, Genova said, “The college looks forward to meeting with Mr. McWilliams to discuss this.”

Airport administrator Brian Condie, replying to McWilliams’ proposal, noted that there are no water rights connected to the property, making it ill-suited to agriculture.

“What I was proposing to them is, why don’t you think outside the box?” said McWilliams.

He said he proposed a five-year lease as a way of exploring the potential of several types of biofuels crops. Some crops, such as Camelina and Giant Miscanthus, prosper in arid climates without irrigation.

“Garfield County should be looking toward public-private partnerships to build up a biocrop and biofuels industry, and put the local ranchers to work,” McWilliams said.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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