Broward News

Delray Oil Baroness Banks on Jatropha

Teri Gevinson thinks money grows on trees.

That's why she's planted 9,500 jatropha trees in Delay Beach, on land where pepper and tomato farmers had long since packed up their hoes and gone home in disgust.

The jatropha is the next big thing in agrofuel (switchgrass is so last year), another save-the-planet strategy to help us wean ourselves from fossil fuels. The tree, whose leaves look like a cross between pot and poison ivy, produces an oil-rich seed, and that oil has been used as gas for planes, trains, and automobiles -- some trains in India run just fine on the stuff, even when loaded down with extra passengers and live chickens.

Unlike, say, oranges, the wild jatropha can be grown densely without a lot of water (unlike the main contenders for ethanol production, as a new report details) or coddling. A mature tree can generate at least a couple of gallons of oil.

The jatropha looks like the place where the farmer and the environmentalist might meet and actually not come to blows. Gevinson, CEO of Ag-Oil in Delray and owner of Ascot Development in Boca, says her daughter came up with the idea for growing the high-yield trees when it looked like the development bubble had burst. Gevinson was so taken with the prospect of growing her own jatropha that she dove into research about mechanical harvesting, toured facilities in Brazil, and bought seeds from different jatropha test projects around the world. "So far, the Haitian seeds have done best here," she says. Her plan is to situate a processing facility on 104 acres next to the plantation, where she has so far cultivated 20 acres. She's looking forward to another delivery of 7,000 plants currently growing in the nursery.

Jatropha has the advantage that it's not a food source -- like corn or soybeans -- so theoretically at least, its cultivation shouldn't lead to mass global starvation. And Gevinson has a plan to combine her jatropha oil output with algae, which she says will increase yield exponentially. She expects her facility to create 276 direct job positions and 2,741 indirect jobs over five years. Capital investment on construction and engineering will be spent in Florida, she adds. Once local farmers see the processing plant in operation, Gevinson hopes they'll be persuaded to grow their own.

"There's an endless market for alternative fuels," Gevinson says optimistically. "FPL, PalmTran... they all run on diesel; they could all use our fuel. Continental Airlines already completed a test flight using jatropha plus algae in two of the plane's tanks. In the future, you're going to see more and more cars produced that run on diesel. I mean, they're already producing electric cars, and it's not like it's easy to find a place to plug into. Biofuel just makes more sense."

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd