Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Biofuel company anticipates February start


January 1, 2020

Courtesy photo

Tucumcari Bio-Energy President Robert Hockaday examines a boiler used to heat digestion tanks at his ethanol plant, which he said he soon will convert into a methane-gas plant.

The president of a Tucumcari biofuels company said he anticipates construction will begin in February to convert a closed ethanol plant on the city's north side into a methane-gas plant that will create 40 jobs for a one-year period.

Robert Hockaday, president of Tucumcari Bio-Energy, said in a phone interview about $5.5 million in financing nearly is in place to begin the conversion of the plant to create flammable methane gas from cattle manure from the region, plus some whey from Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory.

Hockaday said the financing comes from about $4.4 million in bank loans backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over $1 million will come from new market tax credits from the New Mexico Finance Authority. The money will be used to purchase major equipment and engineering needed for the ethanol-to-methane conversion. Most of the ethanol plant's existing equipment will be used, however.

"With that, we have enough money to refurbish the plant and get it running," he said.

He said about 20 of the full-time jobs coming in February will be in construction, while the other 20 full-time positions will be trained as operators of the plant.

He said he still seeks about $2.5 million from local investors who would be stockholders in the company. He wants to use that money to make the plant power-independent with solar arrays and build greenhouses at the site that would use the plant's leftover carbon dioxide to help boost plants' growth.

"We'd like the stockholders to be local," he said. "That way, the dividends are paid locally instead of shipped off. We've got enough to get into production, but if we get equity partners, that adds speed. We can do more phases earlier."

Hockaday said it will take months for the bacteria used to create methane ramp up to full efficiency. Whey from the cheese factory, he said, helps "spike" production of the gas.

Hockaday said he expects the methane plant to be in full production by February 2021. Once that happens, Tucumcari Bio-Energy could produce up to $12 million in methane, carbon dioxide and fertilizer each year.

He said the plant will use cattle manure to produce methane because of the ample amount produced at dairy farms in neighboring Curry County and at feedlots near Dalhart, Texas.

Hockaday has identified a ready market for the methane in California for compressed natural-gas vehicles. The methane also qualifies for renewable identification number credits because the plant recaptures gas that contributes to climate change. Hockaday said those credits now are earning $200 a ton.

The compost that's left over after methane production is rich in phosphorus and potassium, Hockaday said. Because the methane is produced at a high temperature, it kills leftover weed seeds and sterilizes the fertilizer. That fertilizer then would help local farmers.

Tucumcari Bio-Energy in 2018 enlisted the help of New Mexico-based Sandia Labs National Laboratories to see whether converting the company's ethanol equipment to methane was feasible. Sandia Labs showed how the company could modify its tanks to minimize risks and find an ideal temperature range for methane production.

Hockaday said the company also received assistance with a feasibility studey from the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University. The university also will help secure two patents for the company on its production methods.


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