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Former Eastman farm may become energy incubator

Rick Wagner • Feb 4, 2007 at 11:15 AM

KINGSPORT - A 200-acre farm near the interchange of Interstates 26 and 81 will become a regional energy and transportation incubator if an East Tennessee nonprofit group's plans go forward.

And the talk among alternative fuels proponents is a potential pilot program to grow switchgrass along interstate medians and rights of way across Tennessee.

The Valleybrook Farm, owned by Eastman Chemical Co. but being sold, would become the Southeast Regional Energy and Transportation Center's incubator, center official Gary Cameron of Kingston said Friday.

Cameron said the site - which includes 72,000 square feet of office, laboratory and conference room space and 24,500 square feet of storage and warehouse space - could house biofuels and alternative energy companies, groups and individuals. Cameron said he believes the idea of growing switchgrass along interstate medians and rights of way, which East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition Executive Director Jonathan Overly said is gaining steam, would cut down on mowing expenses and provide a valuable commodity to make fuel.

"What we're trying to do is not compete with what the people at Oak Ridge and UT (the University of Tennessee) are doing. We just want to complement it," Cameron told the monthly Kingsport meeting of the coalition. "We can start April 26th if somebody has an interest."

That's the day after the non-disclosed buyer is set to take possession of the property from Eastman.

"We want to raise the funding to lease and operate the center and then the funds to buy it at the end of the (lease) period," Cameron said.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen Wednesday announced a $72.6 million proposal he said would help make Tennessee a farm-based biofuels leader, focusing mostly on UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratories research into turning switchgrass and other biomass into ethanol used in "grassoline."

A growing number of vehicles can burn E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

"The state is heading down the direction of switchgrass," Cameron said. "There's a lot of good ideas out there."

He said the incubator could provide space for everything from growing switchgrass and corn to harnessing wind power to test tracks for alternative fuels vehicle, as well as research on biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen and electric vehicles.

"We want to get realistic tests run and get the fueling stations in place," Cameron said.

The recent purchase of Blountville-based Appalachian Oil Co. by NewGen Technologies Inc., a biofuels company that does business under the ReFuel America name, soon could lead to the first E85 pumps in the Tri-Cities, Overly said.

Andy Burke, head of the Tri-Cities Economic Development Alliance, said he is intrigued by the incubator proposal.

"We as a region need to get out in front of some of these things," Burke said in a phone interview Friday afternoon after talking earlier in the day with Cameron. "It's a very viable concept. We are certainly interested in playing whatever role we can."

During the meeting, Overly gave information on grants to help cities, counties and school systems switch over to biofuels, as well as grants for producers and distributors of biofuels and loans for farmers producing biofuel raw materials.

For more information contact Overly at (865)974-3625 or go to www.ETCleanFuels.org.

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