Biofuel plant has Lee County agog

County negotiates for facility, jobs here

By Rhyan Hiraki

August 5th, 2009

Lee County and a Bonita Springs biofuels company have begun negotiations to build a plant that would convert algae into ethanol and create more than 1,000 jobs.

Commissioner Ray Judah announced at Tuesday's commission meeting he and Economic Development Director Jim Moore are discussing a partnership with Algenol Biofuels Inc. The company, which has plants in Germany, Spain and Baltimore, says it can produce ethanol at low cost by using algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and seawater."It looks very promising," Judah said.                                                   It didn't last month, when Algenol officials announced plans to open a plant in Texas after failing to secure a state grant. The Texas plant will be built but negotiations in Lee are underway as well. Judah is not sure when, or whether, both sides will come to an agreement. Any decision to invest in keeping Algenol here, such as using part of the $25 million in economic development money, has to come before commissioners for a vote. And Paul Woods, chief executive of Algenol, only had a few minutes to talk between conference calls Tuesday and said details such as the cost to build the plant and the size of the land needed have not been worked out yet.

"If there's any way we can work this out in a timely manner, we're going to do that," he said.                                                                                                                                                                  Woods said he has been trying to work with the state. He requested a grant for $1.75 million to purchase 15 acres in Palm Beach County and $750,000 to buy equipment. The state rejected the request because renewable energy grants cannot fund land acquisitions. Woods decided to build a plant in Freeport, Texas.

The company was founded in 2006 and has 100 employees. It produces biofuels, an alternative to the oil and fossil fuels most people use in their cars today. Despite the Bonita Springs headquarters, Woods has been unnoticed in Lee because he has kept his business quiet by opening plants out of state. Algenol's Web site did not mention Bonita as its headquarters and Lee County's Economic Development Office did not have the company listed in its database. Judah learned about Algenol's plans with Texas about a month ago while reading The News-Press and decided the county needed to make a pitch to Woods, especially with its unemployment rate at a record 13 percent.

Commissioners take July off and have no regular meetings, and the Sunshine Law prevents him from talking to other commissioners about issues that could come before the board for a vote. That left him no way to discuss the biofuels company with Commissioner Tammy Hall, the board's go-to person on economic development. So Judah called Woods himself. He set up a meeting with Woods and Moore. Moore will be working with Woods to strike a deal, although Moore said he is unsure if the county will need to spend money to help Algenol.                                                                                            "The county is well-run and solvent, and we're very pro-business," Moore said. "We're trying to get them engaged in giving Lee County a second look."

Woods is doing that, even though he plans to build the Texas plant and maintain Bonita as his headquarters. "I'm happy to see that they're doing something different than standard fossil fuels," said Dan Tarver, Freeport's economic development director. "I certainly would welcome that."                                                                                                                                                                              Judah likes green energy too. He has a record of protecting environmentally sensitive land in east Lee County and has been a cheerleader of a biodiesel plant at the state farmers market property off Edison Avenue.

Even better, though, could be the jobs an Algenol plant would bring as the county tries to diversify an economy dependent on real estate and tourism. Gary Jackson, director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University, said the creation of 1,000 jobs would be significant.

"It's worth exploring," he said. "That's what Lee County is doing. That's a good thing."