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Behind deadline, power plant could be in operation by November

As power plant nears completion, Red Hills seeks tenants

ACKERMAN — If we build it, will they come? That’s the million-dollar question for Choctaw County, where developers are trying to sell companies on a new way of doing business.

The 96-acre Red Hills EcoPlex in Choctaw County is being built around the environmentally-friendly idea that companies in the EcoPlex exchange each other’s by-products or waste to use as energy or another product.

The project started back in 1993 with a discussion on a Florida golf course and became reality with support from former Gov. Kirk Fordice and a $30 million commitment from the State of Mississippi. Six years later on Oct. 27, 1998, Fordice, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Congressman Roger Wicker and other officials broke ground on the park’s centerpiece, the Red Hills Power Plant.

The plant was scheduled to be finished by December 2000, but several bumps in the road have slowed construction. The plant’s contractor is now finishing the last punch-list items, and the plant could be fully operational by November, said plant manager B.H. “Randy” Ransdell.

“We’ve been up to 80+ percent load, so the plant functions and functions reasonably well,” said Ransdell, who has 30 years experience managing electric generation plants.

The Red Hills Power Plant is the largest circulating fluidized bed (cfb) electrical generating station in the world, according to Ron Forsythe of Engineering Associates/ Pickering, the company recruiting industries to the park. The power plant is fueled by its companion facility, Mississippi Lignite Mining Co., which has been in operation since the first of the year. As the park’s first example of how companies can use each other’s products, Mississippi Lignite mines the lignite that fuels the plant — shipping it via conveyor to the Red Hills Power Plant. The plants have a combined workforce of about 180 people.

Now that the Red Hills Power Plant is at last ready to produce, will the EcoPlex be able to attract industries?

“It’s a slow process,” said Choctaw County Chancery Clerk Don Threadgill.

Threadgill said there are plans to enhance the aesthetics of the park by clearing and grubbing the land, constructing an access road and laying gas and water infrastructure.

“From a prospecting standpoint, once we get the land looking like an industrial park it’s going to be much easier to recruit companies,” said Forsythe, who has been involved with the project from the start — first with the State of Mississippi and now with Pickering.

As a partner with Choctaw County in the development of the EcoPlex, Pickering has been trying to recruit new industry to the park since 1998. Forsythe would not comment on specific companies who are prospective tenants, but said candidates include fiber processing industries, food processing industries and agricultural industries.

According to the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), a partner in the Red Hills project, complementary tenant industries could include:

• hydroponic greenhouse cultivation

• aquaculture

• pork and beef processing

• furniture manufacturing

• pulp and paper products

• brick making

• concrete mixing

• automotive parts supply

• fertilizer production

The project’s cash cow, however, is the fly ash produced by the power plant when the lignite is burned, said Forsythe. If the fly ash’s quality is up to snuff, the ash could be sold to other companies to make roads, plastic products, bricks and many other products. Fly-ash buyers may even decide to locate in the park.

But whether or not the fly ash will be an attractive commodity remains to be seen because the plant is not operating full scale.

“If we get a good read on the chemical analysis of the fly ash, we’ll have a lot of folks banging on our door,” said Forsythe.

“We certainly think the material will be suitable for all kinds of things,” said Ransdell.

According to the MDA, companies locating in the EcoPlex may qualify for state or federal environmental technology grants and regulatory allowances, as well as incentive programs based on industrial ecology, energy-efficiency, and environmental design.

Forsythe traveled to Denmark this month to the Eco-Industrial Development Partnership Roundtable to make a presentation on the development and status of the EcoPlex. Denmark successfully operates a similar park — the Industrial Complex at Kalundborg.

Forsythe readily admits that the road to building the EcoPlex has not been an easy one to travel.

“Because of corporate jealousies, it’s been slow to catch on in this country,” he said. “You don’t see one auto manufacturer locating next door to another because one would steal employees from the other. You don’t find that in Denmark.

“The Red Hills Ecoplex is to the U.S. what Kalundborg is to the rest of world — a model of how a park can be developed to minimize waste to maximize the efficiency and profitability by all parties,” said Forsythe. “It’s a different way of doing business.”

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1027.

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