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Imagine a future where you produce your own fuel. You just go behind the house and fill up your car, your truck, your clean, green George Jetson-style hovercraft with fuel you made from something grown nearby. It's an appealing vision, and as Adam Burke reports from southwest Colorado, an extremely difficult thing to pull off.
ADAM BURKE: When farmers in the town of Dove Creek started planting sunflowers a few years back, it was primarily a decent income, not energy independence that motivated many of them. But an activist-turned-entrepreneur named Jeff Berman had floated a proposal with a green hook: he told farmers if they grew sunflowers, he'd give them a renewable fuel source.
Mr. JEFF BERMAN (CEO, San Juan Bioenergy): Well, when we first came in, we were going to produce biodiesel from local, sustainably grown oil seeds and allow the farmers to use that fuel to grow the wheat and to grow the beans that they also grow here.
BURKE: Berman is the CEO of a company called San Juan Bioenergy. His part of the bargain was to build a facility in town that could turn sunflower seeds into biodiesel. To do that, farmers would have to start producing sunflowers -lots and lots of them.
Mr. DAN WARREN: It was very attractive to think that we could raise our own tractor fuel, sure.
BURKE: Dan Warren, a third-generation farmer in Dove Creek, remembers those early meetings with Jeff Berman.
Mr. WARREN: With pencil and paper you could see that there was more money involved, per acre in the sunflowers.
BURKE: But farmers, they are a conservative lot. Richard Knuckles says he was skeptical even then.
Mr. RICHARD KNUCKLES: The way they painted the picture, everything was just going to go smooth as molasses. Everybody was going to raise sunflowers and get rich.
BURKE: Anyway, it's likely that any number of development projects — green or not — would've received enthusiasm in Dove Creek. Unemployment in the surrounding county leads the state at around 14 percent.
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BURKE: Follow the highway that runs through town and you'll see empty storefronts tucked in between the clusters of grain silos and supply stores. One of the gas stations has fresh plywood on the windows and doors. Follow the highway out of town and you'll find sunflowers flourishing in the high desert.
Mr. GRANT ALLEN: When you put them in the ground, if you get hot days after that, you can almost watch them grow.
BURKE: Twenty-two-year-old Grant Allen grew up in Dove Creek farming pinto beans and wheat with his dad. Five years ago he raised one of the first small pilot plots of sunflowers in the area. And now, he's scaled it up.
Mr. ALLEN: I've planted 2,105,600 seeds on this field here.
BURKE: On one of his 300-acre fields, the red earth is as fine and as dry as talcum powder, but the sunflowers are chest high. Bristly, green leaves and stalks scrape at our clothing as we cut across the planted rows into a massive crowd of bright, yellow faces — blooms the size of dinner plates.
Mr. ALLEN: I love growing them. This right here — whenever they're bloomed out — this is what I farm for right here.
BURKE: Still, as much he loves sunflowers, Allen says it was the processing facility that had made them a viable crop.
Mr. ALLEN: We farmed sunflowers on the pure hope that they were going to get their doors open and they were going to start producing. And that's what kept us going, you know?
BURKE: By 2008, thousands of acres around Dove Creek were growing sunflowers. Local grain silos filled up with the sunflower seeds that San Juan Bioenergy had purchased from farmers. Jeff Berman says he'd raised $5 million through investments and loans. And a plant was under construction that would extract oil and then convert that oil to biodiesel. But at the same time, the biodiesel market was beginning to crash. And by the end of the year, federal subsidies for biofuels dried up. Here's Jeff Berman again.
Mr. BERMAN: To survive, we had to make some changes. If we had insisted on building our biodiesel plant, then we would not be here.
BURKE: Berman's key to survival was to focus on the part of the operation that would still work: producing food-grade sunflower oil. Now, this can't have been an easy transition for a guy looking to start a green revolution, but the company has managed to stay in business and hang on to its renewable vision.
Mr. BERMAN: Now, you could all come in here now.
BURKE: On a tour of the sunflower oil facility, Berman expertly guides a group through the chutes and ladders of the extraction process.
Mr. BERMAN: That hydraulic press you see there pushes against it to…
BURKE: Thus far, the facility's main green innovation is in the way that a waste product — in this case, sunflower hulls and pieces of plant material — is transformed into fuel. What they do is pretty cool.
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BURKE: Machines grind up this biomass and press it into little fuel pellets. It kind of looks like rabbit food. And those pellets are fed into a special gasifier.
Mr. BERMAN: So, in this gasification chamber, 95 percent of this biomass turns into a gas.
BURKE: And then that gas is routed to the company's generator.
Mr. BERMAN: And so you can burn natural gas, or synthetic gas in our case, in a generator to produce your own power.
BURKE: Berman estimates the system will produce a third of the electricity and all of the heat needed to run the plant. Now, that's will produce. It's important to note that workers are still fine-tuning the process. Meanwhile, Berman is continuing to dream.
Mr. BERMAN: We plan, in our next phase of development, to build wind and solar, allowing us to create what I think is going to be the first always-on, hybrid, renewable energy system, if not in the country, in the world.
BURKE: But that next phase is no sure thing at this point either. To complete the processing plant and finish paying farmers for last year's crop, Berman has been shipping sunflower seeds to the Midwest at a loss. San Juan Bioenergy has produced just 15 tankers of oil since January. And farmers like 22-year-old Grant Allen have begun to worry.
Mr. ALLEN: Sunflowers could bring us farmers down as much as it could save us right now.
BURKE: Here's the thing though: Jeff Berman's vision and his determination have motivated a small community to step out into uncertain territory. It's a risky place to be. But in many ways, Dove Creek is no worse off than it was five years ago when Berman first came to town. And if it turns out that San Juan Bioenergy does crack the code on sunflower power, it'll be little Dove Creek waiting for the world to catch up.
For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.
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