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Published: Monday, June 28, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Biofuel venture hasn’t paid off for Snohomish County

Market for canola fails to materialize

A plan to lessen Snohomish County’s dependence on fossil fuels while helping local farmers has fallen well short of expectations.
Supporters urge patience. In time, they say, an improved economy will boost demand for locally grown oilseed crops, such as canola, which can be turned into biodiesel. Eventually, they maintain, a $1.2 million investment in a grain dryer and seed crusher at the county’s Cathcart facility south of Snohomish will prove worthwhile.
“It’ll come back — I just think it’s one of those speed bumps,” County Councilman Dave Somers said. “Once oil prices go up, it’ll be a hot commodity again.”
Yet many critics wonder whether the endeavor, funded partly through state and federal grants, was a good idea in the first place. Somers’ colleague, Councilman John Koster, said he’s been skeptical from the outset.
“The bottom line is that it’s gotta pencil (out) in the end,” Koster said. “If this is such a good deal, then why didn’t the private sector make the investment? That’s always been my objection to this.”
County Executive Aaron Reardon in 2005 directed his office to look into growing and processing biofuel crops. Local farmers said they wanted new markets for their products. At the same time, the county wanted to reduce its use of foreign oil and cut emissions from petroleum-based diesel.
The county soon embarked on experiments with local growers to learn if oilseed crops, including canola, also called rape seed, would grow well here. The county also started looking into ways to process the crops.
By 2008 the county had lined up $344,000 in federal money to help pay for a 15-ton-per-hour grain dryer. The dryer runs off methane emitted from garbage buried at the former Cathcart landfill. A $500,000 state grant allowed the county to buy a 24-ton-per-day seed crusher.
The county covered about 30 percent of the total project costs — roughly $400,000.
In theory, the dryer and crusher should have allowed growers to process canola and other crops locally, instead of trucking them east of the Cascade Mountains at enormous cost.
The county’s original goal was for farmers by now to be growing 1,000 acres of canola and other oilseed crops. That would have produced enough fuel to power all of the county’s 300-plus diesel vehicles on a blend of 20 percent biodiesel.
This year, only about 100 acres of farmland in the county is being used to grow canola and other oilseed crops, county public works director Steve Thomsen said.
“I anticipate it will take a while for the project to be successful,” he said.
The county’s plan was never to turn a profit, Thomsen said, but to show farmers and local entrepreneurs what could be done.
“It’s kind of a demonstration project,” Thomsen said.
Another setback came this spring, when the county asked for bids from private companies interested in running the crop equipment at Cathcart. Nobody bid on the five-year contract. So it will be up to the county to run the crusher and dryer.
Logical contenders for the job included two companies that partnered to get the crusher and dryer running. Neither wanted to commit to five years, though both defended the concept.
“It’s just not economical to run it,” said Merritt Wolfkill, president at Wolfkill Feed & Fertilizer Corp. of Monroe and Stanwood.
Wolfkill said he has no hard feelings toward the county and plans to provide any technical expertise he can. He said the crusher, which can also churn out meal for livestock, would be more profitable if located near a feed lot.
“You can see the county trying to support agriculture, which is a great thing,” he said.
Wolfkill’s partner was Whole Energy Fuels, a Bellingham company that runs a biodiesel distribution terminal in Anacortes.
Whole Energy CEO Atul Deshmane said the economy has hit his company hard, and he’s too busy keeping it afloat to risk a venture that might lose money.
“In no way do I believe that people in the county or any of the people involved in this are throwing in the towel,” Deshmane said. “People in the county and people in the industry, we all want this stuff to work.”
In two years, he predicted, it would be doing well.
A Monroe farmer who gave up trying to grow canola after a couple of years wasn’t so optimistic.
Agricultural land in Snohomish County is simply too expensive and in too short a supply to make growing canola or other biofuel crops worthwhile, Peter Alden said. Without government subsidies, biofuel crops would never work, according to Alden, who said he opposes subsidies.
“It’s been done simply as a way for Aaron (Reardon) to show people in the county that he’s supportive of agriculture,” Alden said. “I think Aaron is supportive of agriculture, he just doesn’t know the right direction to go about it.”
While critical of the overall project, Alden said the dryer is a success because it can be used for a variety of locally grown crops takes advantage of methane from buried solid waste in the landfill.
Dale Reiner, another Monroe farmer, said he’s only growing about 15 acres of canola right now, but thinks the fuel crop eventually will take off.
“That’s a good investment for the county and if they could start using their own biodiesel in their own fleet rather than buying it somewhere else, then that’s a good project,” Reiner said. “I’d tell them to do the same thing again even if I know where it was going.”
Efforts to wean government vehicle fleets off fossil fuels have lagged.
Snohomish County now runs about two-thirds of its diesel fleet on a blend of 20 percent biodiesel. The county had hoped to have all its diesel-powered vehicles using biofuels by now, Thomsen said. Even missing the goal, the county’s performance still is better than the state’s.
A 2006 law required all the state’s ferries and diesel-powered cars and trucks to use a 20 percent biodiesel mixture by last year.
By the end of 2009, less than 2 percent of the state’s ferries and land vehicles were using biodiesel, said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the state’s General Administration. Biodiesel’s higher cost and tendency to gel in cold weather were the main reasons for not reaching the target, Valandra said.
The limited success of the county’s canola project apparently hasn’t cooled Reardon’s desire to weigh in on energy matters.
On June 9, as oil gushed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Reardon had this post on his Twitter account: “Boycott BP. We all have a voice in this matter. Exercise your rights as a consumer.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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