New West Memphis center leads push to renewable energy [The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.]By Wayne Risher, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 24--Mid-South Community College officials are betting East Arkansas has what it takes to be a leader in alternative fuels: Fertile fields, a world-class transportation hub, and, as of this week, a research, development and training facility dedicated to renewable energy.
As college officials dedicated the $9 million Marion Berry Renewable Energy Center in West Memphis Friday, a micro-refinery was already producing commercial grade biodiesel from soybean oil in a room next door to the ceremony.
Mid-South named the facility for the former 1st District congressman who, through appropriations earmarks that have since been condemned in Washington, helped pump $55 million into education, workforce development and economic development in his district.
"I love you all and I thank you for the way you have honored me here today," Berry, 69, told a couple hundred people who packed into a diesel mechanic training shop outfitted with Case and John Deere tractors.
Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South, said East Arkansas has always been good at growing crops, but not so good at maximizing the profit from those crops. "We've grown it and we've let somebody else make money from it."
By supporting innovations and entrepreneurial ventures and training skilled workers, the center can help the region control its economic destiny, from growing the crops to producing the fuels to distributing the finished products, Fenter said.
The center, which has ties to the region's community colleges plus Arkansas State University, Montana State University-Northern and University of Memphis, "really puts us in a position to move East Arkansas to the forefront of this conversation nationally," Fenter said.
Berry, who served in Congress from 1997 through 2011, said he was a believer.
"The land, the water and the people can do it," he said. "It will be interesting to see if politically we can do the other things that we need to do to make this thing succeed."
The center has an ethanol distillation unit and plans in the works for a gasification unit that will make gas out of biomass feedstocks such as switchgrass and camelina, nonfood crops that can be grown in the region.
The biogas unit will more than supply the building's energy demands, thanks to an advanced, geothermal heating and cooling system and design features that meet or exceed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
The school plans to sell excess biofuel and biomass energy.
Fenter said the Montana State connection is key. High school students will be able to enroll in one of the country's leading diesel technology programs before graduation, propelling them into a high-demand job market sooner.
Fuel production facilities are complemented by laboratories that will accommodate research on fuels and lubricants by advanced students and entrepreneurs, said Dr. Sunny Morris, a grant writer and special projects liaison to Fenter.
Morris envisioned the labs being used to develop new additives tailored to biofuels and as a proving ground for the local trucking industry. The Memphis area is home to the nation's third-busiest trucking corridor and terminals for most national truck lines.
Alt. consulting, a business consulting group, is working with Mid-South to turn ideas and discoveries into businesses. One idea is to replicate the center's biodiesel refinery for small towns in the region.
A micro-refinery could help a town eliminate a waste product, used cooking oil, while producing biofuel to run trucks and heavy equipment.
The unit at Mid-South cost about $200,000 to build and will produce about 250,000 gallons a year. A less sophisticated unit, without the bells and whistles of a teaching tool, could probably be built for about $150,000, Morris said.
David Bergeron, U.S. Department of Education acting assistant secretary of postsecondary education, said the center supports President Obama's goal of a better educated workforce.
"We recognize the recovery of our economy can only come with a highly educated workforce," Bergeron said. "What you're doing here fits very well within the framework of what we're trying to do nationally."
(c)2012 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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