SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO – Columbus will be home to Luna County’s first green energy facility—literally green, in this case.
Algae will be cultivated by Sapphire Energy in man-made ponds about 8 miles west of Columbus on the Mexican border, to later be converted to a green goop called algae-based biofuel, oilgae, or algal fuel.
“This will be the first Sapphire facility in the country,” says Tim Zenk, spokesperson for Sapphire Energy in San Diego.
“We’re looking at different geographies,” says Zenk. “Now our focus is on New Mexico.”
Luna County is considered ideal for algae-based biofuel because of the flat desert conditions, the high level of sunlight, and the large amount of underground salt water.
Sapphire has an $8-million research facility in Las Cruces that’s experimenting with algae cells.
“We are breeding algae which can only live right in this area,” Zenk said.
Sapphire claims its “green crude” is a 100-percent renewable resource with about 70-percent less carbon emissions than petroleum-based equivalents. They claim it doesn’t impact agricultural crops, land, or water.
The green light
Algae-based biofuel research is getting the green light from government all the way from President Barack Obama to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who signed an executive order in January to promote a green economy in the state, to U.S. Rep. Harry Teague in southern New Mexico.
Last December, Sapphire received $104.5 million in federal funding for the project. The U.S. Department of Energy supplied $50 million in stimulus funds and the U.S Department of Agriculture provided $54.5 million in loan guarantees.
Sapphire also has several high-powered private investors—the Wellcome Trust, Cascade that’s owned by Bill Gates, Venrock of the Rockfeller family, and ARCH Venture Partners.
Luna County has chronically had the highest rate of unemployment in New Mexico, partly because of its large number of Mexican agricultural workers with low educational levels.
Sapphire claims 750 direct and indirect jobs will be created in the construction phase of the facility and 30 jobs on a more permanent basis.
“This is a standard model that’s used for estimating facilities of our size,” says Zenk.
The plant will have an impact on businesses that support construction, like the steel industry and truck drivers, he says. There will also be some small spin-off effects on local building hardware stores, restaurants and hotels.
The 30 full-time workers will be a “highly trained workforce.” Zenk sees local farmers as being likely candidates for jobs.
“It will be a farming operation—only we use ponds,” he says.
Promotional material claims that the plant will reach commercial demonstration scale by 2012, commercial scale by 2018, and by 2025, 1-million gallons of “green crude” per year will come gurgling out of the plant.
Zenk makes it clear, however, that this is a “pre-commercial demonstration plant.”
Deming administrator Rick McInturff says that while the Sapphire plant’s impact on the workforce in the county may not be strong, “It will create a tax base, and in this economic downturn, this is a big plus.”
It’s relatively easy to establish a plant in Luna County, McInturff says, because the county has no zoning, except in Deming and an extra-territorial zone around the city, as well as in Columbus.