By David Hendricks
San Antonio Express-News
A Czech Republic company says it has found an abundant, long-term source of energy in South Texas to help European utilities produce electricity.
The energy source has nothing to do with the Eagle Ford Shale.
The source is the hated mesquite wood.
“We looked all over the world for a stable and big source of biomass. We found the source in Texas,” Zdenek Mayer said. He’s business director and CEO for GreenHeart Energy LLC, the Texas division of GreenHeart Energy, based in Duchcov, Czech Republic.
GreenHeart Energy LLC has selected San Antonio for its Texas company’s headquarters — for legal, banking and accounting purposes — but most of its activities will occur near and in Corpus Christi.
GreenHeart Energy, founded in 2008, plans to harvest mesquite in South Texas, chip the wood, and ship it from Corpus Christi in bulk to a German port. Once the chips are in Europe, electricity utilities will burn them to create turbine-turning steam.
Because burning mesquite chips produces less pollution than the coal the utilities have been burning, the utilities can sell some of their pollution permits back to their governments.
Mayer listed Poland as the country with the biggest potential for mesquite chips. Utilities in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Denmark also are likely customers, Mayer said.
Mesquite wood has a low moisture content and an energy level, when burned, of somewhere between that of brown and black coal, Mayer said.
GreenHeart Energy estimates more than 500,000 acres of mesquite exists within 100 miles of Corpus Christi, with a yearly availability of 19 million tons. The company wants to harvest mesquite within only 100 miles of Corpus Christi to control transportation costs.
Every 35 metric tons of mesquite chips will cost the company about $2 million in payments to landowners, the ports and logistics, Mayer said.
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GreenHeart Energy is negotiating a three-acre lease at Port Corpus Christi, which would give it enough space for 40,000 metric tons of storage.
The company plans to operate three or four harvesting teams of seven workers each. It also will run a fleet of 12 trucks and employ port workers.
Mesquite is even renewable. GreenHeart Energy’s harvesting method will leave the root systems intact. Within 10 years of a harvest, the plant will grow back for another harvesting. “This is nature management,” Mayer said.
Mesquite may look like a tree, but the species is considered a woody plant and not a forest species in the United States.
Mesquite, instead, is viewed as an invasive species that has taken over grasslands and rangelands, wrote Jim Ansley, professor of rangeland shrub ecology at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon, in a letter to Mayer.
The mesquite species existed only in limited locations in what is now Texas. When settlers and the cattle industry rose in the last half of the 1800s, the species spread rapidly across the state. The number of naturally occurring grassfires was reduced by settlements, preserving grass for cattle consumption.
Cattle also consumed the seed-containing legume beans on the mesquite plant and spread the seed geographically, especially on cattle drives, by passing the seeds through their droppings. Mesquite in some places became so dense it threatened the grasslands needed for the cattle.
“These thickets may have potential as a bio-energy feedstock source,” Ansley wrote in the letter. “It sprouts vigorously after above-ground harvest and would be considered a highly sustainable fuel source.”
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GreenHeart Energy LLC plans to be operating in Texas as early as June, Mayer said. The company is being assisted by San Antonio lawyer Bob Braubach, who met GreenHeart executives in February at a Business Opportunities in Mexico and Texas seminar in Prague, the Czech Republic capital.
Will mesquite wood ever work as a fuel for U.S. utilities? It obviously takes a large amount of energy to harvest, chip and transport the wood chips, but Mayer and Libor Šmída, GreenHeart Energy LLC’s business development manager, said their strategy works for Europe if the pollution credits are considered.
Cris Eugster, CPS Energy’s executive vice president and chief strategy and technology officer, said he is aware of European utilities, especially in the United Kingdom, turning more to biomass sources.
“For us, it’s a cost issue,” Eugster said. “Until the costs come down, it’s still a bit out there.”
Mayer said he is confident that biomass has a big energy future. “There are now a lot of companies looking for biomass in the world,” Mayer said.