Biodiesel plans bring hope for jobs
Monday's announcement that a group plans to build a 24-million-gallon-a-year plant near Havre to produce biodiesel is raising hopes that it could result in a boom to the economy.
"This is great news for Havre, " Mayor Tim Solomon said this morning. "That's going to help us lots as far as the job market in Havre, bringing more people back home. "
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Baw Development Corp., said the potential could be huge on an economic side. Creating 40 to 50 new high-paying jobs will have a major impact.
"Any time you're talking about that number of jobs in a rural setting like this, it's significant, and that's an understatement, " he said.
Representatives of MCAI Group said Monday they plan to build the plant at the Montana Agro-Energy Industrial Park being constructed south of Havre.
MCAI Managing Director Michael Sanders said this morning that his group expects the plant to provide 40 to 50 high-paying jobs that "will not be minimum-wage jobs. "
But that could just be the start.
He said the intent is to partner with Montana State University-Northern to provide on-the-job training and hire local residents to work at the plant.
"We're not planning to bring people from outside of Havre, " he said. "The whole idea was to create jobs in Havre. "
Sanders said his group intends to work on other technology-oriented jobs based out of Havre, and with jobs created to support those businesses and provide supplies and services they need, the end total could be much more than 50.
"Our hope is we can create 400 to 500 jobs up there in the next five to six years, " Sanders said.
Project already simmering for nearly two years
MCAI has been working for more than a decade to help bridge the gap between academic knowledge at colleges and universities and its application in industry. Sanders said MCAI now has partnerships with about 59 institutions globally.
The group works in a variety of fields including education, health care, business, information technology and renewable energy.
MCAI began looking at the Havre project at the invitation of Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki.
Sanders said his group has been working on this project for Havre for about 20 months. Funding for the project will include work through its financing subsidiary, Synergist Capital Group. Its renewable energy subsidiary, Bullhook Innovation Group, was created as a direct result of the Havre project.
He said the region was attractive because of the people and because of the support of Northern and the idea of a biofuels refinery, as well as the existence of Northern's biofuels facility and the land available to grow crops.
The top attraction was testing being done by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway — which uses 40 million gallons of diesel a year in its Havre refueling facility alone — in conjunction with Northern, Bear Paw Development, Opportunities Link Inc. and Earl Fisher Biofuels of Chester. BNSF is running a one-year test using locally produced biofuels in one of its switching engines in the Havre yard.
"(The testing by) BNSF absolutely is the driving force, " Sanders said.
Partnering with Northern
Greg Kegel, dean of the College of Technical Sciences at Northern, said this morning the partnership would take the university's research and work in renewable energy fields to the next level.
"That's the missing spoke in the wheel for our Bio-Energy Center …, " he said. "We always knew with the whole biofuels effort the cart and the horse weren't in the right order. "
Kegel said the university's elite research, testing and certification staff will work hand-in-hand with the production facility, which also will provide an opportunity to place graduates and co-op students.
It will allow Northern to push for another goal — creating a new chemistry-based program in the field of biofuels to support the production side of the industry.
Industrial park progressing
Tuss said work is continuing on the industrial park southwest of Havre. Bear Paw is applying for additional funds to complete the park.
The 2009 Legislature allocated $300,000 of the state's share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the park, after the original $400,000 budgeted was cut out and local legislators worked to add it back in.
Tuss said Bear Paw estimates that about $250,000 more is needed to complete the first phase, including providing water and sewer, electricity, curbs and gutters, and roads, some of which already is complete.
He said he is confident the U. S. Economic Development Agency will fund the request, but the MCAI project should be able to go on regardless.
"I see no reason why a business that is willing to locate in this region couldn't move dirt on their project as soon as possible, and we certainly would work to make that happen, " Tuss said.
The plant could bring a boom to agriculture in the region and the state, as well.
Kegel said it would take more than 1 million acres of camelina to supply a plant producing 24 millions of biodiesel.
"It sounds like a lot … it is a lot, but it isn't as much as you think, " he said. "There's a lot of acres out in Montana, " including many acres idle.
He said the benefit of using camelina, which also has been shown to thrive on marginal land that won't support wheat production well, as a rotational crop has been proven by studies.
Having camelina in a four-year rotation will benefit the soil, Kegel said.
"It's very healthy, " he said. "That's probably the thing that's going to make the whole thing take off. It's beneficial to the producer. "
Solomon said creating the demand for — and supply — a new profitable crop would impact the entire region.
"Oh definitely, " he said. "From what they're talking, that would be fantastic for the farms around here, and every time they do good, everyone in Havre does well. We all see the results. "