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Posted on  

January 29, 2004

50 gather to hear pros, cons of ethanol plant

By John Bartlett

MEADVILLE Jim Berry braved a lengthy Wednesday-morning trip on snow-covered roads from his Jefferson County farm to Meadville to learn what is necessary to develop an ethanol plant in the area.

He liked what he heard.

"I think it's a terrific idea," said Berry, one of about 50 people who attended the meeting at the Days Inn. "It's a sign of things to come. Renewable energy makes us less dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels, it's clean and it would be a new industry."

That was just the message the event's sponsor, the Crawford County Farm Bureau, wanted to get across.

"I seriously feel an ethanol plant could be a plus for the whole region," Crawford County Farm Bureau President Doug Gilbert said.

"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Crawford County and Pennsylvania. ... We've got to start looking at different opportunities to keep the economic viability of Crawford County (from slipping)."

But Wednesday's meeting represented a small first step in what could be a long process.

After all, there is a lot to look at when considering an ethanol plant that would convert corn to ethyl alcohol, which is used in automotive fuel, said Delta-T's Larry Johnson, the event's featured speaker.

Delta-T is one of the nation's leading ethanol plant engineering and design firms.

Johnson said any group or community interested in an ethanol facility needs to weigh four key issues: site selection, the economics specific to the planned facility, project financing and the intangibles, such as community acceptance and available leadership.

A site for an ethanol plant should be about 40 acres in size with rail access and good highways, sufficient water and the availability of natural gas or another fuel source to power the plant.

A plant would cost about $28 million for a 15-million-gallon-a-year production, about the minimum size economically feasible and about $55 million for a 50-million-gallon-a-year facility, he said.

Every proposed site and facility is different and has to be evaluated individually.

"The most important issue is profit. If you are not going to make money, forget it," he said.

If profitable, a plant would bring a lot of other advantages, including 30 to 40 full-time jobs, hundreds of workers temporarily employed during construction and a new market for locally grown corn, he said.

Johnson made available to those interested a list of suggestions for organizing a group to pursue an ethanol plant and suggestions for the first six months of effort.

He said that if interest in the plant exists, the first step is finding the money for it and then conducting a professional feasibility study. His firm could recommend a number of consultants, but preferred not to do the feasibility study itself, he said.

While the majority in the audience clearly liked the concept of an ethanol plant in Crawford County or elsewhere in the region, some thought a lot of hard questions remained.

"I think a big question to me is the corn supply," said Tom Wilson, an agricultural extension agent. "We are a net importer of corn in northwestern Pennsylvania."

Sue Ferry, executive director of the Meadville Area Industrial Commission, said the presentation was interesting and seemed to represent a lot of promise. But she said she needed to learn a lot more about it before she could pass judgment.

Morris Waid, chairman of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said a "real study" is necessary on the issue. "The information was very good, but we need to take a much closer look," he said.


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