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Southern Utes’ innovation fuels Colorado’s new energy economy

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IGNACIO, Colo. – The union of traditional long-term planning and a contemporary race to the future joined July 29 with the dedication of a biofuels plant on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

Southern Ute tribal lands are flanked on the east by Chimney Rock, a centuries-old ceremonial site, and on the west by the famed cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park.

But between the ancient landmarks, a water tower signals the site where algae-inhabited water basins are ready to take their place in the 21st century as progenitors of what may become plentiful, affordable fuels.

The Coyote Gulch Biofuels Pilot Plant is a partnership venture of the increasingly prosperous Southern Ute Tribe and nascent Solix Biofuels, an alternative energy technology partner and startup company of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.

Solix’ goal is to “commercialize technology that can cheaply mass-produce oil derived from algae and turn it into biodiesel – an environmentally friendly solution to high gas prices, greenhouse gas emissions, and volatile global energy markets,” according to CSU.

The process involves the use of closed photobioreactors for low-cost production, with algae contained in plastic panels suspended in shallow water vertically to provide an extended surface area for greater efficiency. Tubes deliver carbon dioxide as a carbon source and the algae create oil – biocrude – through photosynthesis.

“Algae are the fastest-growing organisms on the planet, and can produce 100 times more oil per acre than conventional soil-tilled crops that are now being grown for biofuel use,” according to a CSU.

“We believe algae has great promise as a source of efficient, cost-effective commercial-scale biofuels production, but not all algae companies are created equal,” Rebecca Kauffman, president and CEO of Southern Ute Alternative Energy, said.

“We were impressed with the engineering and systems approach taken by Solix and look forward to working with their talented team to help bring these technologies to the marketplace.”

Widespread construction of photobioreactors may meet the U.S. consumption of diesel fuel – at minimum, an estimated four million barrels per day – by growing algae on less than half of a percent of the nation’s land area, including tracts adjacent to power and ethanol plants.

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Algae grown in Solix photobioreactors yielded more than five times the amount of fuel per acre of land per year than agriculture-based fuels, including ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy and canola at present commercial yields, CSU said.

“Solix engineers have created systems that automatically adjust for environmental changes such as sunlight and temperature to optimize growing conditions.”

There could be another benefit, as well. Kaufman said the biofuels facility, located next to an existing natural gas processing plant, “could help to mitigate to some extent” the possible global warming effects of coal-bed methane gas, of which carbon dioxide is a byproduct.

The Southern Ute Reservation, as is the case with Crow and Navajo nations and other Indian lands, has potentially large greenhouse-gas producing resource reserves.

Clean-burning methane gas is in high demand, and the Southern Ute tribal lands sit atop significant coal-bed methane reserves.

Coyote Gulch Biofuels Pilot Plant is a project of the Southern Ute Growth Fund’s Alternative Energy program, the tribe’s newest enterprise, which manages Southern Ute investments in alternative and renewable energy.

Its objective is to “focus on opportunities in areas that will produce positive environmental impacts and that have sound technologies and solid economics,” according to the tribe. “Alternative Energy is currently involved with ventures in wind energy, electrical transmission and biofuels.”

Initial funding of about $10.5 million was led by I2BF Venture Capital, a London-based venture capital firm focused on biofuels, and Bohemian Investments, a private investment company based in Fort Collins.

Others were Southern Ute Alternative Energy, Valero Energy Corp., the largest U.S. oil refinery operator, based in San Antonio, Texas, and Infield Capital, an investment fund focused on emerging clean technology companies, based in Boulder, Colo. The funding supported Solix’ development of technology including its closed photobioreactor system. Further funding provided construction for the pilot plant.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said the project was “innovative and forward-thinking” and is “great news for southwest Colorado, demonstrating that the New Energy Economy is benefiting communities all across the state.”