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New Mexico’s first biodiesel production plant fueling hopes, a range of fuel sources

Farmers and others with diesel-fueled engines in the Dona Ana County area of southern New Mexico have a local source for biodiesel. Jed Smith and Dean Belcher launched New Mexico’s first biodiesel production plant in August 2006 with their Rio Valley Biofuels LLC in Anthony, N.M., located just north of El Paso, Texas off Interstate 10.

With a background in the construction industry, Smith and Belcher branched out, intensely studied biodiesel production, and now offer a locally produced, high quality alternative to 100 percent petroleum-based diesel fuel.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel is a clean burning alternative fuel produced from domestic renewable resources for blending at any level with petroleum diesel to create the biodiesel blend. Biodiesel is created through a process called tranesterification where glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil.

At Rio Valley Biofuels, 2,000 gallons of biodiesel can be produced daily. Actual daily production for the company currently ranges from 500 to 1,000 gallons a day. Used vegetable oil from a tortilla facility near El Paso, Texas, is the key ingredient for making the biodiesel.

Smith and Belcher learned some of the intricacies of producing high quality biodiesel from some of the best leaders in the industry during a workshop in Iowa.

Rio Valley Biofuels-produced biodiesel meets the stringent American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) specification D6751.

“We didn’t expect it to be as hard to produce to the ASTM level. There are some pretty strict standards that basically sort out the men from the boys,” Smith said.

“Biodiesel is a completely biodegradable product. It doesn’t have hydrocarbons like petroleum-based fuels where it can contaminate the groundwater. Within 10 days, biodiesel completely decomposes,” stated Belcher.

Prior to the venture, Smith and Rio Valley Biofuels employee Nick Mitchell worked at Deerman Farms, a crop operation in nearby La Mesa, N.M. The men worked from the planting season through harvest and soon recognized the need for quality, affordable fuels in agriculture.

Today, about a dozen customers a week drive into Rio Valley Biofuels to fill up with the locally made biodiesel. Some learned about the company from the National Biofuels Board website,

“Most people are aware of the petroleum issue,” Smith said. “Some are more serious and those are the ones turning to alternative fuels. People’s consciences are telling them to be more aware of the fuel situation and use something other than just petroleum.”

Current regular customers include the City of Las Cruces, N.M., to power trucks at the Corralitos landfill and at Boone Transportation in Anthony. Smith and Belcher are working to provide fuel to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the City of Las Cruces bus line.

Farmer supported

Deerman Farms’ owner Wade Deerman is a regular customer of Rio Valley Biofuels.

“We have equipment running from 10 percent to 100 percent biodiesel. Outside of changing the fuel filters a few times because of the cleaning factor of the fuel when we first got started, it’s been fine.”

Farm equipment from John Deere, Case IH, Caterpillar, dump trucks, and hay balers are burning biodiesel. Deerman’s 900-acre operation this year shifted from cotton to alfalfa as the primary crop, using cotton in a rotation, plus oats and corn for silage. He used about 60,000 gallons of fuel in 2006.

“While we’re running biodiesel in all the equipment, one ‘on the road’ dump truck is our real guinea pig for biodiesel,” Deerman said. “Right now the dump truck is running on 100 percent biodiesel. We’ve had a 28 percent increase in fuel efficiency in the truck since we went to 100 percent biodiesel.” That’s a 28 percent fuel savings.

Deerman is pleased with the switch to the biodiesel blend. One difference he’s noted from the biodiesel compared to 100 percent petroleum diesel is a different tone of the typical knocking sound from diesel engines.

“The engine sounds better. I think it has to do with the lubrication factor of biodiesel that petrol diesel doesn’t have anymore.”

Deerman has experienced one negative from biodiesel use. When outdoor temperatures drop below 28 degrees, if there is a concentration of 70 percent biodiesel, it gels up. So he uses a 20 percent blend in the winter. The current summer blend is 50 percent biodiesel and 50 percent petroleum diesel.

“Every ounce of biodiesel made out of United States grown commodities is one ounce of fuel we didn’t buy from somebody overseas,” Deerman said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s all the benefit I need.”

Smith and Belcher plan to make agri-biodiesel from cottonseed and put money back into local farmers’ pockets.

“We are working to put a seed press mill together so we can press locally-grown cottonseed that normally would be sent to California or sold to dairies,” Smith said. “We could pay more to the farmer for the seed and turn it into fuel, creating a cheaper fuel to the farmer.

“Our goal is to bid on the cottonseed and have a place for it to go by the 2007 harvest,” Smith said.

Smith and Belcher are also researching sunflowers, brown mustard seed, and possibly algae grown locally for future fuel production.

New biofuels laws

New Mexico’s youthful biofuels industry received a shot in the arm in April 2007, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law Senate Bill 489. The legislation mandates, in part, that all diesel fuel sold to consumers after July 1, 2012 must contain 5 percent biodiesel.

Another new law, HB 1145, provides tax incentives for the production and sale of biodiesel in New Mexico.

“Biofuels are the way of the future," said Fernando Martinez, director of New Mexico’s Energy Conservation and Management Division. “The Biodiesel Standards Act and Biodiesel Infrastructure Tax (HB 1145) incentives are examples of how our state is working to reduce green house gas emissions, diversify our fuel supply, and increase the production and usage of clean burning fuels.”

“The bills increase our economy in the agricultural sector by growing crops for fuels and expanding construction of renewable fuel refineries that will utilize these crops,” Martinez said.

Other N.M. biofuels production

While ethanol remains the ‘King of Biofuels’ nationwide, the sole ethanol plant in New Mexico is the Abengoa Bioenergy Corporation’s operation in Portales.

Built in 1985 by the Energy Fuels Development Corporation, the plant was sold to High Plains Development Corporation and later to Spain-based Abengoa Bioenergy. Abengoa has four U.S. ethanol plants — Portales, Colwich, Kan., and two plants in Nebraska.

According to Scott Phillips, shift production supervisor at the Abengoa Portales plant, ethanol production was doubled from 15 million to 30 million gallons several years ago. Grain sorghum is used to produce the ethanol, Phillips said. The plant consumes about 30,000 bushels of sorghum daily. Yet the website states that corn is the raw material used.

“Most of the sorghum is trucked in and some is grown locally,” Phillips said. “During harvest, they contract locally if possible.” The Abengoa plant produces syrup and wet cake (wet distillers grain) as co-products that are sold to local dairies and feedlots within about a 150-mile radius.

“The main difference between milo and corn is that milo has a little higher protein content in the wet cake and syrup. The reason we use milo is that it’s more readily available here. We’re closer to where they grow it. We’re not in the corn belt,” Phillips said.

In the nearby town of Clovis, construction could start soon on a 105 million gallon a year ethanol plant from corn.

In June 2006, the Carlyle/Riverstone Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund announced in June 2006 plans to construct the plant on the ConAgra Trade Group’s Peavey grain elevator property. ConAgra Trade Group is the commodity trading part of ConAgra Foods Inc.

While plant construction was delayed because of community-based air quality concerns, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry approved the air quality construction permit on May 22, 2007. ConAgra requested the permit.

“I granted the permit based on detailed reports and the record,” said Curry. “I expect the company to be a good neighbor and comply with its permit conditions.”


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