Proposed biomass recycling project could bring jobs to Rock Falls

City in talks with Dixon-based company; facility would set up near sewer plant

ROCK FALLS – City leaders gathered Tuesday to learn more about two possible business ventures – one that would be run by the city, and the other by a private company.

The Committee of the Whole heard presentations by Magellan, the city’s broadband consultant, and Green Vision International. The meetings give council members an opportunity to discuss particular issues at length, but no action is taken.

Green Vision International has been working with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois on a biomass recycling project that could be launched commercially in Rock Falls.

Don McFarland, vice president and chief operating officer at Dixon-based Green Vision, told the council that the technology would use human and animal manure to produce biocrude oil and algae.

“The back end of the biomass conversion process is used to produce various strains of algae that have a variety of business uses,” McFarland said. “We would start with three algae models, but there are many types.

Users of the algae, which is difficult to produce in large quantities, include the food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics industries.

McFarland said the company made the decision in October to go commercial with the technology.

“We invited several communities to come to our presentation in Champaign, and Rock Falls became engaged in the process,” McFarland said.

The facility needs a nearby wastewater treatment facility, and Rock Falls has room for expansion at its site.

While the company could start the business immediately in several other states, Illinois is its first choice, largely because of its relationship with the University of Illinois.

McFarland said about 200 tons of waste a day is needed to operate the facility as planned. He has been speaking with several municipalities, including Polo and Freeport, about being a waste provider.

McFarland said the cities involved could save more than $3 million on waste costs.

“The savings could be significant for us – we spend about $50,000 to $60,000 a year to get rid of our sludge,” Mayor Bill Wescott said.

The city would have to enter into an agreement that would allow the company to use its property for the facility.

Wescott said the opportunity is attractive to the city for several reasons.

“The prospects for job creation are exciting, because in addition to jobs created at the facility, this could become a hub for secondary businesses that grow from the byproducts,” Wescott said.

McFarland said the city hasn’t been asked to invest in the project, and he would like to keep it that way.

“We will have to be creative, however, to make financing work in a state with no budget,” McFarland said.

Green Vision had been optimistic about getting some economic development funding from the state, but that door closed during the budget impasse.

Whiteside County Economic Development Director Gary Camarano asked for particulars on the business model, including how much of an investment was needed.

McFarland put the figure between $10 million and $13 million. When fully operational, the facility would employ about 108 workers with a mean annual salary of slightly more than $40,000. Five acres of land would be needed to start operations.

The city is also discussing the possibility of an electricity deal with the company.

“Because they would be generating more electricity than they would be using, we could buy the excess electricity from them,” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said.

McFarland said the company would maintain its close relationship with the university, and its scientists would continually work to develop new uses for the algae produced.

Magellan broadband

Representatives from the city’s broadband consultants, Magellan Advisors, also updated the council on the business plan it has developed for expanding the city’s fiber network.

The model, which the city could adjust as needed, calls for establishing geographic fiber areas called fiberhoods. The residential infrastructure wouldn’t be built until a fiberhood has 45 percent of its residents signed up for service.

The total investment, based on building out 14 fiberhoods would be about $13 million, but it could be done gradually at an estimated $250,000 for each area.

The fiber expansion would happen first along the city’s business corridors.

If the city gives Magellan the go-ahead, work would begin on the network design and an implementation plan. The engineering timeline would be between 90 and 120 days because part of the infrastructure backbone is already in place.

WHAT’S NEXT

Broadband discussions will continue at the city's Electric Committee meetings. That panel meets at 8:15 a.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month at the Electric Department, 1109 Industrial Park Road.

If the city agrees to bring the biomass project to town, a lease agreement must be drawn up with Green Vision International for the company to use the city's land for the project.