Investors mull alternative-energy plant |

Investors mull alternative-energy plant

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

NEW CASTLE, Colo. ” Imagine this: On remote land near New Castle, wind turbines spin, helping power a plant that produces ethanol, perhaps also with the help of electricity from solar panels. The plant also could tap methane from the coal-rich Grand Hogback and convert it to ethanol.

In addition, the plant would make ethanol from biodegradable materials at area landfills, from solid waste from municipalities and septic service companies, and from switchgrass grown by local ranchers.

The windmills even could be used to pump water into a nearby reservoir, essentially storing energy that could be tapped through hydroelectric turbines when the water later is released downstream.

These are among some ideas being floated by a mix of local investors and out-of-state companies seeking to capitalize on a growing demand for alternative sources of energy.

They’re being met with good measures of both enthusiasm and skepticism by locals, some of whom wonder if the proponents may just be tilting at windmills.

“A lot of people just want to reserve judgment, and I guess I can’t blame them for that,” said John Offerman, president of Minneapolis-based Novus Energy, which is interested in trying its experimental ethanol production technology locally.

Meanwhile, a Washington State company called Gold Rock Holdings is interested in buying land along the Grand Hogback near New Castle for use as a wind farm, said David Dawson, a resident of the upper Roaring Fork Valley who said he has a minor investment in both Gold Rock and Novus.

Dawson is pushing the idea of possibly merging the two companies’ ventures at one location near New Castle.

“I like what they’re both doing, and I want to put them together,” Dawson said.

He likes the idea of a wind farm and methane helping meet an ethanol plant’s energy needs. Dawson said the wind farm would be located on land now owned by Rush Backer along the southern side of the Grand Hogback south of New Castle.

Neither Backer nor Gold Ridge Holdings could be reached for comment.

Dawson laid out some of the alternative energy concepts earlier this year at a meeting attended by a few dozen people in Carbondale.

“I think they’re great ideas,” said Terry Porter, who attended the meeting and who ranches near Backer’s property. “I think that with the current mentality about renewable energy and everything, I think it’s a perfect time to do it.”

But like others, he is raising some red flags about some specifics of what is being considered. Offerman is hoping local ranchers might be interested in growing switchgrass, which he said puts down deep roots and grows well on what can be marginal crop land. But Porter wonders how much switchgrass can be produced locally. There’s not that much ranch land around anymore, and hay prices are good, so there’s little motivation to change to a different crop, he said.

The Aspen Valley Land Trust, which uses conservation easements to protect local agricultural lands from development, has participated in discussions about the concept of linking local ranchers to an ethanol production operation. Associate director Shannon Meyer said the land trust is intrigued by the concept.

“We are always interested in other ways to keep ranchers on the ranch, keeping them from having to sell,” she said.

Porter also has a reservoir near Backer’s land that Dawson thinks would be good to link to a wind farm and hydroelectric production.

“We irrigate all of our fields with gravity from the reservoir. It would be nice to use some of that energy coming through the pipes,” he said.

But he said he has looked into installing hydroelectric generators there before and the problem is that the reservoir is used only in the summer, and most of the time hydroelectric power needs to be used year-round to be worth the investment.

Meanwhile, Randy Udall, who analyzes energy issues as director of the Roaring Fork Valley’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency, has some reservations about both the wind and ethanol aspects of what Dawson and others have in mind.

He said area valleys generally aren’t windy enough to be good candidates for wind farms. The uplands by the Grand Hogback might be more conducive. But he said the wind turbines Gold Rock is interested in sit low to the ground, where there is less wind.

Dawson said the turbines can be stacked to reach higher into the air. The turbines are shaped like silos and spin on a vertical rather than horizontal axis. Such a design is safer for birds, is easy to maintain and can withstand higher winds than traditional, horizontal-axis wind turbines, Dawson said. He believes the desired location would be out of the way enough to draw few complaints about visual intrusion.

Meanwhile, Udall also wonders whether the process Novus would use to make ethanol would require too much energy to be worth it.

“You can turn wood chips to liquid if you want. It just takes a lot of energy,” he said.

Offerman, of Novus, said that by converting waste materials to ethanol, Novus wouldn’t have to rely on food sources such as corn. The company uses bacteria in an oxygen-free environment to break down biodegradable materials. The waste is converted to a methane-rich gas, and then to ethanol.

Novus has talked to representatives with the Pitkin County Landfill about its ideas, which also could include tapping into the landfill’s methane production. But the landfill’s outreach coordinator, Dylan Hoffman, wonders whether the two would be a good fit. He said the landfill tries to compost many of the wood, grass and paper materials Novus hopes to use in its process.

Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig said he has talked once with someone associated with Novus who is interested in possibly making use of the town’s solid waste. He said he would be interested in hearing more about what Novus has in mind and whether it might play a role in making Carbondale a more sustainable community.

For now, Novus is working on a pilot plant in Wyoming, and pursuing projects in other states. Offerman and Dawson said the company is interested in a local project because the Roaring Fork Valley is a high-profile area with a strong environmental ethic and investor interest in Novus. But Offerman understands that some locals would like to see evidence of success by Novus somewhere else first.

Meanwhile, Offerman said Novus has had discussions with Gold Rock about a possible local link-up between the two companies, but is waiting to hear from Gold Rock. Dawson said Gold Rock remains interested in building the wind farm if its funding falls into place.

John Schenk, a Glenwood Springs attorney who has done legal work for Backer, said Backer and Gold Rock had talked earlier this year but he doesn’t think things went any further, and Gold Rock doesn’t have an option to buy Backer’s land. While anything is possible, he said, he described the situation as “dormant” for now.

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