Rio Grande Breeds Breakthroughs in Solar, Water, Biofuels
The Rio Grande Region is green and getting greener all the time, thanks to innovative and aggressive initiatives to conserve energy, from powering cars with cleaner fuels to keeping water consumption at an impressive low. Carlos Guzman is the chairman of URGREEN, the Upper Rio Grande Renewable Energy and Efficiency Network, and the president and chief operating officer of Global Alternative Fuels in El Paso, Texas. His company recycles used cooking oil from restaurants into biodiesel, which is then distributed across the Southwest. Global Alternative Fuels just expanded into a plant with a capacity of 20 million gallons per year, and Guzman says the company isn't stopping there. “We’re going to continue to expand all the way up to 100 million gallons per year, hopefully by 2015," he says. “Every day, we see the demand grow for the product." A major focus of the clean energy thrust in the region has been solar energy, no surprise in an area that receives an average of 300 days of sunshine each year. In 2007, then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation setting a goal that one-fifth of the power delivered in New Mexico would be generated by renewable resources, including solar, by 2020. New Jersey-based NRG Energy and California-based eSolar announced in June 2009 that they would build a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant in New Mexico 10 miles east of El Paso. The facility is expected to come online in summer 2011. The University of Texas at El Paso has also researched solar ponds, which take advantage of brackish, or salty, water to trap and store usable solar energy. Water is a major resource management undertaking in the region. The El Paso Water Utilities Board has been working for decades to ensure that the region's water supply is effectively managed with long-term needs in mind. And it's working. "We started in the 1990s with a very aggressive conservation program that we targeted for our customers, and the result has been that conservation has become a way of life in El Paso," says Christina Montoya, vice president of communications and marketing for the El Paso Water Utilities Board. Since the program began, the gallons of water per person used each day has fallen from more than 200 to just 133. In addition to consumer conservation, the Water Utilities Board is taking a strategic approach to the water it draws. The board recently brought online the world's largest inland desalination plant, an $87.5 million facility capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of potable water each day. The plant, a joint undertaking of the El Paso Water Utilities and Fort Bliss, is named for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who helped secure some of the funding to make the project possible. Using a previously unusable brackish groundwater supply, the plant not only produces potable water, but also employs the most comprehensive water treatment technology available, removing other potential pollutants from the water. The facilities augment existing supplies to make sure El Paso and Fort Bliss have sufficient water for growth and development for 50 years and beyond, and serve as a model for other inland communities that have fresh water challenges. "El Paso is in the desert. It's no secret," Montoya says. "We don't know what's going to happen for the future, and, being a desert city, we want to make sure that we have enough to sustain for the future."