Plant 'fits right in'
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
J. Garth Klimchuk, president and CEO of Berkshire Biodiesel, right, explains the layout of the facility to state Senate President Therese Murray and Sen. Benjamin B. Downing.
PITTSFIELD — A $50 million biodiesel refinery venture is the perfect match for a cutting-edge clean-energy bill now pending at the Statehouse, Senate President Therese Murray said yesterday.
"It fits right in," she said during a visit to the future home of Berkshire Biodiesel at a vacant manufacturing plant on Hubbard Avenue. The facility is expected to begin churning out fuel in 2009.
Murray, other state and local officials, and guests heard the company's business plan from Lee Harrison of Williamstown, executive vice president of Berkshire Biodiesel, as he zipped through the benefits of clean fuel, the local economic impacts of the business and potential opportunities for local farmers in growing new crops for fuel production.
The group then got a look at the old Beloit Corp. research and development plant — the Berkshire equivalent of Fenway Park's "green monster" from the outside and, within, a vast, vacant opportunity with 45,000 square feet.
Murray said the plant is in an ideal area, with an educated, well-trained work force that has been hit hard with manufacturing layoffs in recent months. Thirty full-time jobs would come with the plant's operation, with a "multiplier effect" from money spent locally on wages and other costs.
Berkshire Biodiesel would process and clean used restaurant grease, agricultural by-products and perhaps even algae to create biodiesel, which can power diesel engines. Soybean and other vegetable oils would be used as "transitional feedstocks" until the plant establishes a local, sustainable supply of resources.
The pending legislation calls for all diesel and home heating oil sold in Massachusetts to contain 2 percent biofuel alternatives by 2010, and 5 percent by 2013. If passed, it would create an "instant market" for biodiesel fuel in Massachusetts, said Sherwood Guernsey, a Williamstown lawyer and adviser to the company.
Two other companies are starting biodiesel refinery efforts in Greenfield and Quincy, although the Berkshire operation would be the largest. The investment firm behind the Berkshire Biodiesel project, Northwinds LLC of Harrison, N.Y., has another venture in the planning stages in Connecticut.
Several other states have biodiesel content mandates, but Massachusetts would be the first to establish a content standard for home heating oil, which is used abundantly in the Northeast.
"If we're going to use biofuels, let's make them here in Massachusetts, capture those jobs and capture the investment," Harrison said.
He told the gathered group that research and development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst would help identify new crops that could be grown locally to provide the "feedstock" needed to produce fuel. Of particular interest are crops that will grow in poor soil, which is abundant here.
Garth Klimchuk, Berkshire Biodiesel's CEO, said new research has shown that algae, of the sort that grows in ponds, is an ideal source for biodiesel fuel; research is under way to determine whether it can be cultivated in the Berkshires under controlled circumstances.
Harrison called algae "the holy grail" for biodiesel production.
Murray said the pending energy bill will face some hurdles, including misperceptions that food-producing farmland will be tapped for biofuel production, threatening food supplies.
"We need to get over the environmental community's concerns that biodiesel would turn local farms into factories for businesses like this," Murray said. "We won't be tapping food sources."
The other challenge, she said, is that power transmission utilities are concerned about a loss of business if operations such as Berkshire Biodiesel build their own electricity systems. If that power is then sold to existing power users, utilities will balk at the prospect of losing big-business customers.
Berkshire Biodiesel has received a state grant to cover most of the $5 million price tag associated with construction on railroad tracks, which would serve the entire industrial park area. The Dalton Zoning Board of Appeals is deliberating next week on permits associated with that work.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who hosted Murray yesterday, said the Berkshire Biodiesel venture is a sign that Pittsfield's glass is "half full," from an environmental business perspective, after many discouraging years of attention to GE's legacy of environmental pollution here.
"The weakness of an empty building here is now an asset," he said.
The company expects to begin producing biodiesel fuel in mid-2009. "Western Massachusetts will be the cutting edge of biodiesel technology," Downing said.