GOSHEN -- Should Elkhart County continue to work with Energy Inc.? A Goshen College class told county officials Tuesday they probably shouldn't, but that the idea of turning waste into energy is promising.
Twelve students in Jerrell Ross Richer's senior seminar for business majors worked for six weeks to assess Energy Inc.'s proposal to build an acre-size complex that would use gasification to turn waste taken to the landfill into usable energy.
The students began the project about a month and a half ago when they toured the Elkhart County Landfill and watched a demonstration of Energy Inc.'s technology. They then looked in depth at the company's proposal, compared it to what other companies could offer and examined the gasification process on its own.
"Gasification, as you heard in the presentation, is very promising," Richer said after the students presented their findings. "Energy Inc.? Well, I have to tell you, I was a whole lot more excited about Elkhart County working with this company before we started this project... It did not give me a lot of confidence in the company, but I am still excited about the idea."
County Commissioners Terry Rodino and Mike Yoder, County Councilman John Letherman, Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, Middlebury Town Manager Mark Salee and Elkhart County Redevelopment Program Coordinator Laura Coyne were some of the officials at the presentation.
"It was very well done," Rodino said about the students' work. "We've been struggling with making a decision and it was nice to have someone step up and say, 'We'll get some information for you.'"
Rodino and Yoder both said they had concerns with Energy Inc. that aligned with the students' reports.
"I think it confirms some of our concerns with Energy Inc.'s proposal," Yoder said.
Seth Grimes, an accounting major from Goshen, began the presentation with an overview of the landfill and gasification.
"It really is well run and meeting Elkhart County's waste management needs," but it's not sustainable, he said about the landfill. The students estimated that without changing any actions, the landfill would continue to work for 40 years.
Gasification, Grimes explained, uses high temperatures to break down the chemical bonds in municipal solid waste into char and energy. Energy could be sold to the Elkhart County Jail. Char from organic material could be used as fertilizer.
The students emphasized that while Energy Inc.'s process would save the county money, recycling and reducing the amount of trash need to be priorities.
They also spoke to the company's lack of transparency. Founded in 2009, Energy Inc. does not have a deep background, they said, but also does not back up some of its claims with findings or provide much information about themselves.
Kurt Neufeld, an accounting major from Goshen, researched Energy Inc.'s other projects across the country. Energy Inc. provided very little information on those projects, he said. Neufeld said a few towns with projects similar to Elkhart County were hesitant to jump in on Energy Inc.'s proposal because, also like Elkhart County, there were too many questions about the company and the proposal.
Confident in the gasification process, though, the students presented a list of alternative companies that Elkhart County may find more favorable than Energy Inc., including Vista International, Lundell Enterprises LLC and Wabash Valley Power. Wabash Valley Power is based in Indianapolis and already has several facilities around the state, including down the road from the county landfill at the Earthmovers site.
"Elkhart County is not alone in evaluating these types of proposals," Phil Shenk, an accounting major from Goshen, said.
Several companies have histories in other communities that Elkhart County can access to determine what is best for them, the students said, unlike Energy Inc.'s short and seemingly inaccessible history. "Are we a pioneer or a guinea pig?" a slide asked the audience.
During the time for questions after the presentation, Rodino asked the students directly, "What would you do today if you were a commissioner?"
"Not Energy Inc.," Grimes answered.
Other students in Richer's class researched green energy at McCormick Motors in Nappanee and sustainability in hospitality.
"It's been a fun and really challenging project for us to work on," Grimes said.