A group of businessmen, mostly from the Treasure Valley, is proposing to build a $94 million plant in rural Canyon County to turn sorghum into paper plates and other food-packaging products, and to turn sorghum waste, manure and slaughterhouse waste into natural gas for energy.
The plant would be built on farmland where U.S. 26 meets U.S. 95 southeast of Parma. It has cleared several local zoning and permitting challenges. Now comes the hard part: raising money to build it, starting with $18 million for a first phase.
The group has formed a company called Treasure Valley Renewables. Its members include people with experience in manufacturing, ethanol plants, pulping mills and anaerobic (oxygen-free bacterial) digester operations.
The three-building plant would house about 75 jobs paying an average of $45,000 per year, says Chuck Anderson, a leader of the ownership group. Anderson is president of Boise Bio Gas and owner of QBM Management in Boise, a project-management and process-analysis company.
One part of the plant would turn sorghum into fiber molds Anderson says would make a biodegradable material for producers looking to replace Styrofoam food packaging material.
Neither product offers the kind of instant riches that venture capitalists usually target when they invest millions into technology companies, Anderson says. But Anderson, who has spent a career engineering paper plants for large companies, says he’s confident the plant promises the kind of steady profits to attract investors.
“Being from heavy process industries, I don’t see it as that complex,” he says. “I can visualize it. It’s hard to make sure investors can visualize it, which is why we’re looking at phasing it in instead of going for the whole enchilada.”
THE PLAN STARTS WITH SORGHUM ...
The plan has its roots in the creation of a sorghum growers’ group seven years ago in eastern Oregon.
Sorghum is a high-fiber grain grown for food and for use in biofuel. In 2010, Kurt Christensen started the Agrienergy Producers Association, a co-op of 25 eastern Oregon farmers who grow varieties of sorghum that grow taller than corn and produce high yields, ideal for biomass.
Christensen is based in Nyssa, Oregon, along the Snake River eight miles northeast of Parma. He says little sorghum is grown in Idaho, but Southwest Idaho farmers could add sorghum to their rotations once the plant offers contracts, which appeal to farmers by removing commodity price volatility.
“We haven’t grown any sorghum in Canyon County yet, but we anticipate that being added to the schedule,” Christensen says.
The plant would process 1,000 to 1,500 acres of sorghum per year, he says.
The chosen location would provide Treasure Valley Renewables a central site for transporting sorghum from eastern Oregon and for collecting manure, animal and plant waste products from around the region.
The original plan was to convert sorghum into electricity. Anderson says, but team members couldn’t figure out how to make that profitable. So the group’s chief scientist, Will Charlton, a consultant in anaerobic digestion, ran a few laboratory tests gauging sorghum’s potential to produce pulp. Charlton is president of Digester Doc in Boise.
The test results were better than those for most grains and silage.
“Will and I came together and did some lab experiments, and, wow, it looked good,” Anderson says. “The results were stronger than any grass experiments I’d seen in the industry.”
The group brought in Anderson for his experience in pulp manufacturing. The group has a patent pending for its pulp extraction process, he says.
Treasure Valley Renewables will mold the pulp into firm, water-resistant packaging material that could be useful for many industries, Christensen says. The company will initially seek business with food companies seeking recyclable, biodegradable packing material to replace cheaper polystyrene, a nonbiodegradable plastic that some California municipalities have outlawed.
“If you put your baked beans on it, it’s not going to leak,” he says. “We don’t need additives. There’s no bleaching. It’s a very sustainable product.”
The group will secure funding and begin construction before soliciting buyers for its fiber molds, Anderson says.
... AND ENDS WITH NATURAL GAS
One problem with the sorghum plan was that rural locations in Canyon County the team had its eyes on lacked access to enough electricity needed to process the grain.
The liquid squeezed out of sorghum during processing is high in energy. The team ran more tests, crunched the numbers and concluded that, once run through anaerobic digesters, the liquid could be converted into natural gas used for heating, cooking and making electricity. The process would produce enough natural gas to power the plant and to sell to power companies, Christensen says.
The world has sorghum-processing and natural-gas plants like the one Treasure Valley Renewables hopes to build, but the pairing on a single site would be the first of its kind, Christensen says.
“We are not [first] in any of the technology,” he says. “We’re [first] in the fact that we’ve made this combination. It certainly seems to work both in the lab and on paper.”
The $18 million first phase would be to collect “fugitive” greenhouse gases from dairies and other sites around the area and process them into natural gas.
To achieve the scale and efficiency needed to make the project work, the company would have to complete the rest of the plant all at once during a second phase, he says.
An economic-development group has been championing the plant, but not everybody is excited about it.
Parma residents unsuccessfully opposed rezoning the property at 27349 Shelton Road. Residents were concerned about safety, traffic, noise and odors.
Treasure Valley Renewable partners gave presentations at informational and commission meetings. Anaerobic digesters have a solid safety track record, Christensen says. The sorghum processing will produce an inoffensive and mild grassy smell, he says, and the plant and animal waste feeding the anaerobic digesters will be unloaded from trucks to closed bays. Christensen says crews will wash the trucks and the ground and ensure that organic materials do not rot.
The plant’s natural gas generators would be the same models as those used on cruise ships and would produce noise within the county’s limits, he says.
Pam White was the only one of the three Canyon County commissioners who voted against the zoning change in June.
“I want this business in Canyon County, but I do not believe that the location is right and that it’s compatible for that location,” White said, according to the Idaho Press Tribune.
Another partner is Jim McCune, CEO of DuelFuels Technology in Boise, which processes methane produced in anaerobic digesters into natural gas.
McCune says the group is concentrating on getting investors on board for Phase 1. He declines to name investors and firms considering the project, citing confidentiality agreements. One investor based in California has a home in Boise, he says.
The group has invested “a considerable amount of our own money” into the project and has used some seed money as well, McCune says, declining to provide dollar amounts.
The plant would provide valuable jobs to a county with a median household income of about $43,000, says Tina Wilson, executive director of the Western Alliance for Economic Development. Wilson’s office works to bring business to rural areas in Canyon and Owyhee counties.
Wilson says she met with the ownership group and believes “everything is in line” to close on the property by the end of July.
The Treasure Valley Renewables team didn’t initially plan on creating an environmentally friendly project, but since it will generate its own power and use waste from elsewhere, the plant could become a model for other projects, Christensen says.
“We’re basically sending nothing to a landfill,” he says. “In fact, we’re removing some things that would normally be going to a landfill.”
Treasure Valley Renewables partners
- Chuck Anderson is president of Boise Bio Gas and owner of QBM Management in Boise, a project management and process analysis company.
- Will Charlton is president of Digester Doc in Boise, which specializes in anerobic digester consultancy.
- Kurt Christensen is a longtime Parma farmer and founder of the Agrienergy Producers Association, a sorghum grower cooperative.
- Neil Goodfellow owns Neil Goodfellow Insurance in Ontario, Oregon.
- Jim McCune is CEO of DuelFuels Technology in Boise, which processes methane produced in anerobic digesters into natural gas.
- Kevin Pack owns Andigen Corp., a Logan, Utah-based company that manufactures anerobic digesters and would sell hardware to Treasure Valley Renewables.
- Bob Pitman lives in Middleton and offers chief financial officer consultancy services.