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Ethanol producer sets sights on Imperial Valley

July 26, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

Sugar cane, ethanol and the Imperial Valley.

It sounds like a good combination to the Baton Rouge, La.-based Arkel Sugar, Inc., the company that has set its sights on the Imperial Valley to house an ethanol production factory and power plant using locally grown sugar cane and sweet sorghum.

Arkel officials became aware of the Imperial Valley's potential for ethanol production when they were contacted by local growers. When the viability of local sugar cane production was confirmed, plans for an ethanol plant were put into motion.

Arkel Sugar President and CEO W. Bradley Kimbrough Jr. said the proposed plant would require 38,000 acres of sugar cane and 34,000 acres of sweet sorghum.

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Kimbrough said Wednesday the plant would produce 100 million gallons of ethanol in 330 production days out of the year. The plant would yield 50 megawatts of power annually during year-round operations, Kimbrough said.

In addition to ethanol and power, the plant would produce jobs for the Imperial Valley.

"The plant will directly employ about 400 people," Kimbrough said.

The employment opportunities generated by the whole project could result in 4,500 jobs, Kimbrough added.

"This will have a tremendous economic impact," said Paul Sebesta, director of the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center near Holtville.

Among the plant's impacts that won't be significant are those on the environment, Kimbrough said.

"It's enviro-friendly," Kimbrough said, pointing out operations will meet all permit requirements and power generated comes from a renewable resource.

The most immediate concern for Arkel is increasing the amount of sugar cane and sorghum grown in the Imperial Valley to ensure enough stock will be available for the plant's projected October 2003 opening.

About 200 acres of sugar cane currently are grown in scattered plots around the Imperial Valley, Sebesta said.

According to Imperial Irrigation District figures, fewer than 100 acres of sorghum were grown in the Imperial Valley in 1999.

"We need to work with growers for the planting stock in the next 30 to 45 days," Kimbrough said.

"It's crucial to find and identify growers to partner with us," Kimbrough said.

Arkel is looking for investors to financially back the project. Early responses from potential investors have been positive, said Geoffrey Culm of All American Investment Group, LLC, who is working with Arkel.

Should Arkel's plant become a reality, it could signal the start of a new industry in the county and the state.

"With the Imperial Valley's climate, feed stocks and community support, we could become a major supplier of ethanol in California," Sebesta said.

"Some people in California feel we're dependent on ethanol from other states," Sebesta said.

Most ethanol produced in the United States is corn-derived and produced in the Midwest.

"Cane is an excellent feed stock for ethanol. It has one of the highest yields of ethanol per acre of agricultural crops," Kimbrough said.

Kimbrough said he hopes other companies will look at the Imperial Valley to build ethanol plants.

"We would encourage and support other ethanol producers," Kimbrough said, adding the companies could form an alliance to show the rest of the state what kind of ethanol production is available here to meet its needs.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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