Grant would fund biomass research center

Published 9:17 am Friday, May 14, 2010

FRANKLIN—An application has been submitted for a federal grant that, if awarded, would help create a renewable biomass energy development center in Franklin.

Robert Sharak, Development and Public Relations Officer for the regional workforce organization Opportunity Inc., said a request was made for $500,000 to be received over a two-year period. The funds would come from the Community Trade Adjustment Assistance Grant, which is offered through the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The grant request was submitted by Opportunity Inc. and Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. on behalf of the City of Franklin.

Sharak said the project was officially named the Center for Renewable Biomass Energy Development, and that FSEDI would be in charge of implementing the proposal and would use some of the funds to hire a full-time program manager.

FSEDI President and Chief Executive Officer John Smolak sounded a cautious.

“We think this is something that would be useful for the community, however we have not received it yet,” Smolak said Thursday. “We have to compete with several other communities that have received the same trade adjustment assistance designation. We are in competition with many other communities that have different proposals.”

According to Sharak, the program would devote funding toward researchers who are developing new biomass energy products and processes, and to collaborate with the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium and Old Dominion University.

“The idea is to buy time for someone to work on the grant,” Sharak said Wednesday. “There’s not enough money in the grant to actually do the research, so the money will be used to buy someone’s time to dedicate to identifying grant opportunities in biomass research. Each one could be much large than this grant.

“In order to do the kind of research that we’re talking about, it’s going to take more than half a million dollars over two years,” he continued. “Presuming that they are successful, that would bring additional grant money into the center and the area.”

The grant money would also support and provide technical assistance to new and existing entrepreneurs working in the biomass energy field and training for new jobs.

Sharak and Smolak said the request for the grant was independent of any decision by International Paper Co. to sell some or all of its Franklin mill facilities for possible reuse. The mill will close by summer, eliminating 1,100 jobs.

“It isn’t contingent on that,” Sharak said of a possible sale. “If we get the grant we will do this regardless of what IP does to repurpose the plant. However, should they repurpose the plant to energy companies that are working in biomass energy, that would be mutually-reinforcing.”

“We think we have a way to properly use the federal funds that would help these workers by being able to provide assistance to companies that want to come here and be involved with renewable energy products or services,” Smolak said. “If we help these companies along, it’s going to help our workforce because then they will be able to employ some of those unemployed IP workers.”