Turning resets into assets for biofuel

Turning resets into assets for biofuel

| Jacksonville company recycling citrus wood |

AT A TIME when dead citrus wood seems more like a nuisance than a commodity, a Jacksonville company has found a way to recycle diseased citrus trees and use the wood as biofuel. Its bio baler harvesting system sheers the trees at the ground level, leaving groves ready to replant.

“We go through and spray the stumps. Or farmers can spray. It’s not a great cost to hit it with a herbicide (so there is no regrowth),” explains Dan Laubacker, executive vice president of Green Energy Harvesting.

Alternatively, it can remove the root balls and burn them on site. “We try to be as turnkey as possible for them,” Laubacker adds.

Florida’s citrus industry has been plagued with citrus greening disease since 2005, when it was discovered in South Florida. The disease, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), is spread by the Asian psyllid. It attacks the vascular system of citrus and can kill trees within two years.

Removing dead and diseased trees is critical to the life of the industry with an economic impact of $9 billion annually. That is because abandoned groves can harbor the psyllid, threatening the livelihood of neighbors whose citrus groves are still producing. Yet, removal has been costing growers $400 to $600 an acre — at a time when revenues are diminished.

“Anything we can do to eliminate abandoned citrus would be good for the industry,” says Larry Black, president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers’ organization.

“It’s an opportunity I would encourage people to look at and pursue,” observes Kyle Story, vice president of the Lake Wales-based Story Companies and president of the Polk County Farm Bureau. A fourth-generation citrus grower, Story and his family know firsthand the damage abandoned groves can cause in the neighborhood.

State Rep. Ben Albritton, a Republican from Wauchula and a fourth-generation citrus grower, sees recycling as a way of reducing replanting costs by $200 to $400 per acre. Rep. Albritton, who represents south Polk, Hardee and DeSoto counties, had been looking for a way to put the diseased wood to good use ever since he witnessed a loader removing dead citrus trees to be burned about a year and a half ago. He made the connection between that and an article he read about biofuels.

“I’m driven on a daily basis to look for ways to stop waste,” explains Rep. Albritton, who chairs the Florida House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. “That’s the way I think.”

After he had the idea, he called Mark Robinson, director of research and mapping for Energy Florida, a non-profit organization in Cape Canaveral, and asked: “What do you think about trying to find a way to monetize dead citrus trees? He said, ‘Wow, interesting. Let’s get on it.’”

Robinson learned about the machines at a biomass conference in Orlando. When the connection was made, Green Energy Harvesting officials found their system was more suited for citrus trees than it was for preparing roadbed for paving, which is how they were using it. “It does a very clean job. It’s a low-impact machine,” Laubacker says.

The machine, manufactured by Gyro Trac in Summerville, S.C., has been in development for five years and can clear 15 acres per day. “We have six machines. We can mobilize pretty quickly,” Laubacker states.

Clearing costs from $225 to $350 an acre; prices are lower because the wood is sold to biomass plants that need wood to supply energy. Citrus wood actually has a very high heat value, making it sought after for energy use.

Company officials already have been getting calls from California and Brazil. “They’re needing the exact same application there (in Brazil) immediately. Our big thing now is we’re trying to prepare for that,” he continues. “It’s a pretty big marketplace.”

The biofuel initially was tested in Poland. “Europe is more interested in a general sense,” Rep. Albritton explains. With 17 plants burning biofuel in Florida, “I would say there’s certainly ample opportunity (to use the wood) right here in the state of Florida,” he adds. “It’s almost like a dream.”

To see the machine at work, visit the company’s website at www.greenenergyharvesting.com. To learn more, call Laubacker at (904) 501-5106 or (904) 285-6921.

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article by CHERYL ROGERS