In the depths of the recession in August 2009, when layoffs were rampant and hope was scarce, a new proposal had it all.
There was a savior. A $96 million investment would create 500 jobs at an average salary of $41,000 a year.
There was star power. Energy-Inc., the Las Vegas-based startup pushing its plan to Elkhart County officials, was co-founded by actor John O’Hurley, who played the iconic J. Peterman character, Elaine’s boss, on “Seinfeld.”
There was even some feel-good. Elkhart could be a pioneer in alternative energy, helping the environment by turning the community’s trash into energy.
In this week’s edition of Ask the Truth
, the community voted for our reporters to answer a question submitted by Corey Smith: “Whatever happened to Energy-Inc.'s plans to build a facility in the Elkhart County area and hire 500 workers?”
If you’d like to send your own question to Ask the Truth, write it down in the blue box at the bottom of the story labeled, “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?”
The company would convert solid waste to electricity through a process called gasification, heating it up to such high temperatures that oxygen wouldn’t be needed, and therefore, minimal air pollution would result. The company was envisioning two local projects: a facility where it would manufacture gasification machinery (potentially at the then-vacant Patriot Manufacturing plant north of Middlebury, which is now home to Evergreen RV) and a facility at the county landfill that would convert trash and methane into electricity.
But over the next year, proposed ground-breakings were repeatedly delayed. The final public mention of the plans came in a Dec. 1, 2010 Elkhart Truth article that quoted Energy-Inc. president and CEO Kim Kirkendall, a former casino executive, saying construction would begin that month.
It never did.
What happened to Energy-Inc.’s plans?
As it turned out, the county decided not to pursue the landfill partnership because it needed to front some money or land, and there was a need for extensive inter-local agreements, said Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder. For example, the county needed to ensure retained use of the methane it now captures from the landfill and uses to power the jail.
“In the end this public-private partnership could not gain any traction because the economic modeling did not appear overwhelmingly favorable, viable U.S. models/facilities we could visit did not exist, and government does not do entrepreneurial activities with taxpayer dollars,” Yoder said.
The plans also received a cold reception from a Goshen College business class that made a project, at Yoder’s request, out of analyzing its economic feasibility and technological merit.
Professor Jerrell Ross Richer said he and his students initially were excited about the idea of being energy pioneers, and “what a wonderful project for our students.” But that enthusiasm was later dampened.
At a demonstration of the equipment at the landfill, the class asked Energy-Inc. officials for the data upon which they had based their claims that the project would make money for the county while extending the landfill’s life, then projected to be 60 years. Richer said he was leery when the data was presented in a format that did not show the formulas used to arrive at the final figures.
The class ultimately figured out the formulas and found that the landfill project would only generate a “tiny” amount of revenue for the county, much less than what the company was telling county officials, Richer said.
As for the technology, Richer, an economist, noted that neither he nor his students were qualified to thoroughly assess it, but they did enough web research to conclude that it had potential. The problem was it hadn’t been tried on the same scale anywhere else, so the class could not study how it had performed.
"Are we a pioneer or a guinea pig?" Richer said he wondered.
The company also declined to reveal its revenue model.
"They were never transparent with what they had to gain," Richer said. "That just added to the lack of trust and suspicion. They gave us the perception this was a kind of fly-by-night enterprise."
Attempts to reach Energy-Inc. were unsuccessful. Its website can still be found with a Google search, but the home page is blank. Calls made to contact numbers listed for company officials went directly to voicemail, and messages were not returned.
In 2009, O’Hurley and Kirkendall went on a media blitz that garnered significant press coverage around the country. U.S. News & World Report reporter Nikki Schwab and Biomass Magazine editor Anna Austin were among those who wrote about the new company’s promise.
Austin reported that Energy-Inc. had landed a contract with High Ridge Farm in North Carolina to convert hog waste to electricity.
Both writers told The Elkhart Truth this week that they never heard of Energy-Inc. again after their articles were published, and they had no idea whether the company still exists. Austin said there is no mention of a High Ridge Farm in the magazine’s most recent list of working biogas producers.