Biofuel plant construction set to begin

File photo SynSel Energy plans to begin construction of a biorefinery soon on the site of the old paper mill in Ontonagon, pictured here.

ONTONAGON — Thousands of construction workers could be employed next year to begin constructing a new biorefinery plant in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“That should be happening soon,” said Brian Buckta, SynSel Energy senior vice-president administration. “Ontonagon will be one of the first, if not the first.”

SynSel Energy Inc., of Elmhurst, Illinois, chose Ontonagon as one of two U.S. sites to build advanced biofuels plants that will produce synthetic gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels the company sells in commodities markets.

SynSel has partnered with Lost Bowl Development of Ontonagon to build a $300 million biorefinery on the site of the closed Smurfit-Stone Container paper mill in Ontonagon.

At the same time, it is pursing constructing an identical $300 million plant in Lumberton, Mississippi. Buckta said groundbreaking could be anytime at either site, after necessary pre-construction activities are completed.

“It’s a real opportunity for the whole region,” said Pat Tucker, co-owner of Lost Bowl Development and member of the Ontonagon County Economic Development Corp. “It’s a good thing. I don’t know where we’re going to put (the workers), but it’s a good problem to have.

“The big thing is it’s got a really good history of supplying wood to that location,” Tucker said.

Buckta said he hopes construction can begin in spring 2018.

He said the area’s willing labor force will be in high demand.

Each SynSel biorefinery will be operated by nearly 100 permanent plant employees and spur 150 related jobs. Moreover, 2,500 construction-related jobs will be created at each site for up to three years to build the plants.

Incorporated in 2013, SynSel Energy was cofounded by CEO Tim Tawoda and Chief Technology Officer Michael Judd.

“It was their goal to move into the renewable niche from the renewable power niche,” Buckta said. “We are very environmentally conscious. SynSel plants complement existing local forest-related industries by providing a profitable and eco-friendly outlet for waste wood. Many of these communities have few viable options for this wood feedstock since local paper and pulp mills have subsequently closed.”

On the heels of the White Pine Mine and Lake Shore shipyard shutdowns, the paper mill closure in 2010 plunged the local economy into the abyss.

“Some of the perks of what we do is to rebuild and revitalize those communities,” Buckta said. “We’re very pleased to be in Ontonagon. Pat Tucker has been great to work with.”

The plants require an abundant surplus of regional wood waste from the logging industry.

“There’s lots of that in the U.P.,” Buckta said. “The forest industry is seeking a solution to wood waste. We’re fighting climate change.

“Michigan Tech University references a 95 percent reduction in ‘well-to-wheel’ life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels,” Buckta said. “The forest industry is also seeking a solution to wood waste that is normally left behind by conventional logging operations. Our plants will decrease the fire hazard to the region through timber management and by creating demand for the debris.”