Western cotton producers have had many opportunities to include alternative energy options in their enterprises. However, even with current incentives to add solar, biofuels and natural gas to operations, many producers are finding it does not fit into their bottom lines.
"We try to give a look to anything that comes across our desk," says Tulare, Calif., producer Blake Wilbur.
But, at this point most alternative energy programs have been determined to be unfeasible in the Wilbur operation. Wilbur says he has looked at methane and solar energy production and sees great value in both for on-farm energy demands.
"The technologies are not there yet," he says. And, cost of implementation would be prohibitive.
Stan Creelman, gin manager at Mid-Valley Cotton Growers, Inc., agrees.
"The current cotton market in Cali-fornia isn't stable enough," he says.
With a potential drop in production of 30 percent this year, it's hard for him to justify the expense of adding solar to the energy mix at his gin.
No Advantages Seen
In Arizona, the story is much the same. While agricultural acreage is being pulled from production forinstallation of large solar projects, there is no real noticeable advantage to installing solar on the farm.
According to Buckeye producer, Bruce Heiden, 4,000 acres were taken out of production west of Gila Bend, Ariz., for a large solar facility.
"It hasn't hurt cotton production," says Heiden. But, neither has solar necessarily helped.
Most of the power coming off of the farm goes directly into the power grid, much of it going to feed the urban areas of the West at large. There is no real advantage for farmers.
Other producers in Arizona have had turns at alternative fuels. Adam Hatley, who grows cotton in the Phoenix metro area, says his operation has used propane in irrigation trucks.
"It just got too expensive," he says.
Hatley says that if a reasonable supply of biodiesel were available for use in his operation, he would use it. One of the reasons, he says, is because of the better lubrication properties.
However, at this time, biodiesel in the Phoenix area is hard to find and pricing is inconsistent.
In the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico, Rio Valley Fuels has provided biodiesel to area farms since 2006. Operations manager, Jed Smith, says that the fuel is used in irrigation pumps, drill equipment and tractors. While a small amount of cottonseed was processed through the facility, most of the oil has come from food production facilities.
What About Biofuels?
Expanded standards from the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 have added to the viability of Rio Valley Fuels by mandating increased usage of biofuels. Municipalities, county governments and state agencies have been directed to increase their use of alternative fuels, including biodiesel, thus benefiting the company.
At a smaller level, New Mexico cotton producers have directed Cotton Incorporated to use the 7.5 percent of the State Support Program money that comes back into the state through the Cotton Research and Promotion Pro-gram into research that includes utilizing used cottonseed oil as a fuel source through glandless cotton research.
All producers contacted for this article agree that if there was financial benefit from using alternative energy on the farm, it would be used. However, at this point, systems need to be refined to bring the advantage to the cotton producer in the West.
Brent Murphree is the Cotton Board's Regional Communication Manager for the West. He resides in Maricopa, Ariz.