Thursday, May 28, 2009
Walking from Gonzales’ green-arched downtown across the railroad tracks, Harold Wolgamott, a multi-hat wearing city official, points out a small business park tucked behind a packing shed. Seed company Asgrow left the park several years ago, Wolgamott says, and two sustainable-minded businesses have sprouted in its place.
Highlands Soil & Water cultures beneficial soil microorganisms here for local growers, reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Next door Energy Alternatives Solutions Inc. (EASI, pronounced “easy”), makes biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil, supplying renewable fuel to school districts and farmers. “Gonzales has recycled this entire facility,” Wolgamott says.
Seeing a green business cluster forming around the trifecta of biodiesel, organic farming and solar power, the small, south Monterey County city launched a sustainability initiative dubbed Gonzales Grows Green (G3) to attract more green jobs and businesses. Maury Treleven, an energetic, homegrown consultant, is leading G3.
Standing near a vacant lot near Taylor Farms’ processing plant, Treleven says the city is trying to lure a company that could turn recyclables from across the state into a new product. “We’re working for China, man,” she says. “They are taking our scrap… and sending it as crap back to us.”
The city also wants to add a recycling station in the industrial park. The motivation: all of Salinas Valley’s trash will soon be dumped just outside of town. “While Gonzales is growing green we have to look at the larger Salinas Valley to make sure we can keep as much out of the landfill as possible,” Treleven says.
Keeping planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air is another G3 priority. The city is close to breaking ground on a biodiesel station in partnership with EASI where officials hope the relentless parade of tractors and packing trucks will fuel up.
And as a persistent afternoon wind blows Treleven’s blond locks, she adds that the city is exploring the installation of wind turbines and solar panels. One entrepeneur has plans to power a proposed wine center and medical facility with wind and solar energy. Could Gonzales really become the green center of Monterey County?
Green Me Up
Gonzales isn’t Prius-driving, tote-bag-carrying Pacific Grove. It’s a working-class community surrounded by vineyards and row crops along Highway 101. But the city’s small size (population 8,762), room for growth (3,000 acres) and central location in the Salinas Valley make it close-knit enough for spreading environmental consciousness and attractive for space-needy businesses.
The city is taking a practical approach that seeks a triple bottom line of economic development, environmental stewardship and social equity. “We can build sustainable projects that are good for the environment and make economic sense,” says City Manager René Mendez. With his hopes that the green economy can offer sustainable, higher-paying jobs for Gonzales’ largely Latino population, Mendez evokes Van Jones, the African-American environmental activist from Oakland (now advising Obama) who believes green jobs can help fill a void of employment opportunities for people of color. Mendez is careful about gauging how hard to push.
The city is taking a year to explore a Styrofoam ban and emphasizing cost savings as a way to promote recycling.
And unlike several other Monterey County cities, Gonzalez hasn’t pledged to fight global warming through the U.N. Environmental Accords or Mayors Climate Protection Agreements. “It might look good but there is no meaning,” Mendez says. “We need to get things done, not just go to another meeting,” Treleven adds.
Gonzales recently introduced a sustainability element to its general plan, emphasizing compact, neighborhood-centered growth, green building and energy efficiency. A year into G3, Gonzales has also done a lot of little things. The city and Gonzales Unified School District have partnered with Converted Organics to turn school food waste into organic fertilizer for school fields and city parks. It’s using biodiesel in fire engines, promoting yard sales as green sales and requiring special events to recycle. SuperMax has banned plastic bags and both city supermarkets are displaying non-chemical cleaning supplies. But just as the private sector inspired the city to step up its green game, local businesses offer the most promise for sustainable economic development. Here are some examples:
From Grease to Gas
To the hum of grease cleaning, Rich Gillis, president and CEO of EASI, shows a small blue machine that will make a big difference for production of biodiesel. The shockwave cavitator will increase output from 750,000 gallons last year to 3 million gallons this year by cutting down mixing and setting time, he says. Rendering companies collect used vegetable oil from thousands of restaurants on the Central Coast and in the Bay Area and convert it into clean fuel. Since it takes an average of 7.5 pounds of yellow grease to make one gallon of biodiesel, the plant goes through nearly 50,000 pounds of grease a day. “You need a lot of grease and we get a lot of grease,” Gillis says. “[Biodiesel] can go in any diesel engine,” he says.
The Gonzales plant, which Gillis says is 95 percent carbon neutral, opened in December 2006. Gillis eventually wants to open 10 plants producing 5 million gallons a year powered by solar panels.
Through supplier Coast Oil, EASI’s product is being used by Soledad and San Lorenzo school districts, Franciscan Vineyards Inc. and several Carmel and Santa Cruz businesses. Gillis hopes to expand his ag segment more with the opening of the biodiesel station on Gonzales’ River Road. “During the harvest period, you get trucks sitting there waiting in line and idling,” he says. Even if the trucks use B20 (20 percent biodiesel), that will create 45 percent less greenhouse gases than regular diesel, Gillis says.
The three-tank station will allow customers to choose their own blend of biodiesel. But whether Salinas Valley growers and shippers sign-on remains to be seen.
Earthbound Farm is the only big player in the ag industry using EASI’s product. Earthbound uses Gillis’ fuel and other sources to supply B100 at its Carmel Valley farm. The nation’s largest organic grower has gotten a majority of its farmers to use B20 in tractors, trucks, remote pumps and generators, says Chad Smith, manager of sustainable initiatives for Earthbound. “Diesel is the fuel that powers the ag world,” Smith says.“WE NEED TO EVOLVE AND GROW BUT NOT BECOME UNWIELDY. I’M NOT OUT THERE TRYING TO GET THE NEXT TARGET.”
A big obstacle has been making sure the pricey farm equipment is still covered under warranty, Smith says. “Folks are pretty concerned about moving beyond that B20 blend because it moves you beyond the manufacturer specifications and puts you out of warranty,” he says.
Smith adds there’s enough biodiesel supply for the bulk of Monterey County growing operations and most fuel distributors can access that supply. “They are going to be getting biodiesel at close to the same price if not the same price as diesel,” he says.
Mark Mitchell, owner of San Jose-based Coast Oil, which distributes EASI’s fuel, says the company is now able to produce a large enough supply for local growers. “Until Bio EASI got an equipment upgrade they couldn’t produce enough,” Mitchell says. “Now their production is ramping up and I’m looking for a very good summer.”
As General Manager Walter Lorente leads a tour of Converted Organics’ Gonzales plant, the smells range from burnt chocolate to fish food. Located between a herd of cattle and Johnson Canyon Landfill, the company takes grains from the Midwest and fish and crab shells from Eureka, heats the raw input through a series of vats and creates pasteurized, liquefied fertilizer that growers can put through drip irrigation.
And it’s just not commercial organic growers buying the liquid fertilizer. “A lot of the conventional growers are incorporating organics to get more yield and use less synthetics,” Lorente says.
Converted Organics wants to expand by reusing what most people scrape off their dinner plate. The Boston-based company is working to collect food waste from Soledad prisons and Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System and turn it into fertilizer. Rather than burying leftovers next door, Lorente says institutions can drop it off for recycling here and pay 20 percent less.
The partnership with Gonzales school district has been slow going. Duane Wolgamott, (Harold Wolgamott’s brother) director of support services and facilities at the school district, says there isn’t enough food waste since the school uses Styrofoam food trays. The district, which is hard pressed for dollars like everyone else, is trying to get a grant for compostable trays. “[If the district gets] those recyclable trays, basically the kids are going to pull their plastic fork out and everything else will go up to Converted Organics,” Duane Wolgamott says.
Lorente is awaiting the school’s waste: “If we start getting the food waste, we’ll just process it all and put it in the fields that the kids are playing on.”
Highlands Soil & Water cultures organic soil amendments to introduce beneficial microorganisms, creating conditioned and nutrient-rich soil.
“We strive to balance the biology in the soil to get a healthy, functioning soil, and the result of that is better improved savings of water and reduction of fertilizer and reduction of pesticides,” says company CEO and president Tom Piatowksi. The company works with Salinas Valley wine-grape, strawberry and vegetable growers.
He says an increasing number of ag companies are going the sustainable route to cut down on the use of expensive petroleum-based fertilizer. “We are lowering production costs,” he says.
Highlands Soil & Water, which the Environmental Protection Agency has recognized for pesticide-reducing environmental stewardship, started as a small incubator in the Marina Technology Cluster.
Piatowski says he chose Gonzales to locate his plant because of its compact size and central location in the Salinas Valley. He says he is working with the city to design a sustainable resource center to educate growers and the public about green practices. “This is the trend and Gonzales has got an excellent opportunity to become a center for sustainability, here” Piatowski says.
While Gonzales calls itself the wine capital of California and is trying become a green hub, John Handel wants to capitalize on both of these assets, using the same ocean breeze that produces the ideal coastal climate for Pinot and Chardonnay grapes to power his dream wine center.
Vista De Santa Lucia, named for its undisturbed view of the famous appellation, would feature artisan winemaking facilities, cooking classes and a wind-shielded, Spanish-style plaza built for weddings and other events. “We are creating a place where entrepreneurs and small vineyards can go and start having the ability to compete against the big companies,” Handel says.
Handel, a former operations director for Constellations’ Blackstone Winery and a founder of A Taste of Monterey, has teamed up with San Jose builder Barry Swenson to deliver a project powered by wind and solar energy. Handel wants to put a 250-kilowatt wind turbine out front and has partnered with the city to fund a preliminary wind study. But Handel has yet to jump through the wildlife hoop of protecting endangered California condors (see sidebar pg. 18).
Though the plan almost evaporated in the financial meltdown, Handel says the development has the right niche, with banks and investors not willing to fund another subdivision or shopping mall.
Handel is also working with Swenson to develop a one-stop medical facility on 5th Street that would be powered by renewable energy.“WE ARE CREATING A PLACE WHERE ENTREPRENEURS, SMALL VINEYARDS CAN GO AND START HAVING THE ABILITY TO COMPETE AGAINST THE BIG COMPANIES.’’
Handel’s former boss has proven this is possible. Constellation recently installed the county’s largest solar system. The 1-megawatt photovoltaic installation provides about half the winery’s energy, the equivalent of taking 2,000 carbon-leaking cars off the road. In the summer when the winery is not squishing grapes, the solar panels are expected to export enough electricity to power about a quarter of Gonzales’ 1,695 households.
The city is working with the same company that installed Blackstone’s panels, explore putting up solar panels on City Hall. Trash may be another major power source.
Gonzales wants to creates an energy resource and job generator out of Salinas Valley garbage that will have no other place to go once Crazyhorse Landfill officially shuts down any day now.
In March, the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority board authorized a landfill gas project at Johnson Canyon that will convert the dump’s methane into electricity.
“Currently, the plant will produce 1.4 megawatts, which is roughly enough power for 1,400 homes,” says Patrick Matthews, general manager for the Waste Authority, adding that as more trash piles up the plant could generate three to four times as much energy. The landfill project is expected to be online early next year.
The authority has a goal of diverting 75 percent of the waste stream by 2015. In addition to beefing up recycling and composting, Matthews says a pilot project at Crazyhorse could potentially convert household waste into ethanol-applicable cellulose using a steam-driven autoclave. “That project would significantly reduce the waste depending on how large we build it,” Matthews says.
Gonzalez is seeking federal stimulus money (Obama bucks) to build a recycling facility. All the city’s trash is now sorted 30 miles away by Tri-Cities Disposal in Ryan Ranch. The city wants to save every truck load of trash it can from driving through town.
At City Hall, Mendez sits between a rendering of a new emergency services building that the city hopes will receive Silver LEED certification and an aerial photo of Gonzales – a wave of houses amid a green sea of ag squares.
He says Gonzales wants to keep its small town charm. “We need to evolve and grow but not become unwieldy. I’m not out there trying to get the next Target.”
Gonzales may have played its cards right by not erecting multiple new subdivisions – cities from Soledad to King City have seen glut of foreclosures. And while Gonzales isn’t looking to become a mini Portland (and it isn’t rolling in the dough in budget-pinching times), Mendez hopes to slowly create an incubator for environmental business development and grow the city’s tax base.
The biodiesel station will add between $50,000 and $70,000 in sales tax a year, which is a lot for a city with a general fund of $3.6 million, Mendez says. If the city can add a project like that each year it could grow its sales tax revenue by 80 percent over five years, he says.
Though venture capitalists who were talking to the city before the economy crashed aren’t banging down Gonzales’ door, Mendez says businesses are noticing G3.
“The goal,” he says, “is that you have a few companies that say, ‘Maybe we want to locate our company here because we like what they are doing.’”