Epitome Energy’s Egan offers upbeat update

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    Could Epitome Energy break ground on Crookston’s southern edge as soon as this fall and be in full construction mode in the spring of 2022?

    Providing an update to the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) Board of Directors via Zoom this week, Epitome founder/CEO Dennis Egan said that would be the timeline in an “ideal world.” If that ideal timeline came to fruition, the facility with an annual capacity to produce 30 million gallons of biodiesel and crush 42 million bushels of soybeans could be operational by the fall of 2023.

    With three more invoices for the air permitting and environmental review process needing to be paid – to be covered from the $250,000 forgivable loan previously given by the City of Crookston and CHEDA to Epitome Energy – the CHEDA Board OK’ed the trio of expenses from the loan balance that total approximately $62,000.

    A historically bad 2019 harvest that hit farmers’ bottom lines, making them less likely to invest in something like Epitome Energy, was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made conducting equity-drive meetings difficult if not impossible, Egan said. But with a better 2020 harvest and the pandemic finally winding down, he offered an upbeat assessment of where things stand in the wake of those two major obstacles.

    Two of the firms leading Epitome Energy through the air permitting and environmental review process, Wenck Associates and Sunde Engineering, are making consistent progress in the areas of identifying various components of the facility and how those components can minimize things emitted into the air, and the first draft of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) is currently being reviewed, Egan explained, adding that the hope is that the EAW is finalized within a month and ready to be submitted to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

    “The goal, and I stress this is just a goal, is to have the full air permit and EAW submitted to MPCA early in the second quarter,” he added. “We’d hope to get through the MPCA in three or fourth months.”

    If there have been any surprises or other unanticipated developments lately, Egan said they’ve been of the positive variety. For example, he said, Wenck some of the levels of particles emitted into the air didn’t reach the threshold that would have triggered a different type of study.

    “(Wenck) have not found anything that would have MPCA not offer a permit for this project,” Egan added. “We kind of knew what MPCA would be looking for, so we put those safeguards on the front end. We’re very optimistic on the process and finding a positive response from MPCA.”

    The project is going to involve a significant amount of infrastructure work below ground, and the construction of new roads. Outside investment would be necessary to help with the costs, and the previous plan was to pursue state bonding dollars. CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, who first started discussing the Epitome Energy development with Egan around four years ago, told the Times after Egan’s update that timelines and financial models for developments with the scope of Epitome Energy are often subject to change.

    “It is our desire to provide the necessary services to the customer upon the right timing, not too early and not too late,” Hoiseth continued. “Infrastructure needs to properly develop the Colborn acreage (where Epitome would be constructed) are being evaluated with ongoing discussions locally and with others that could assist with additional funding leverage.”

Equity drive

    The arrival of 2021 has brought a renewed energy to the project, Egan said. After being shuttered by the pandemic, numerous meetings are being held with potential local and regional investors in Epitome Energy. He said he’s also had productive talks with the area’s legislative contingent in St. Paul, State Rep. Deb Kiel of Crookston and State Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks, specifically, on modifying truck weights and axle numbers on Highways 2 and 75 so soybean meal from Epitome Energy can be hauled to Canadian markets.

    In addition, a piece of equipment has been added to the facility to make the soybean oil it produces more valuable in the renewable diesel industry. Talks are also underway with BNSF and Minnesota Railroad to expand rail capacity at the site.

    On the critical equity drive front, new investors are coming on board, Egan said, adding that Gary Bridgeford and Larry Altringer recently “pulled a group together” that conducted a session in East Grand Forks. Meetings are scheduled in Ada and Roseau as well, and Egan said he’s close to securing the services of a woman in the region with a successful track record of helping entities raise money. As he’s said previously, Egan also continues to work with larger national players to boost the equity drive.

    “We came out of a farm economy where crops were left in the ground, then came the pandemic and we were not able to meet most of last year,” Egan said. “Now there’s renewed optimism in the farm community. We continue to work that angle. We’re not just relying on regional and local equity, but we continue to pursue it.”