Tight money stymies some, opens doors for others

February 21, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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HOLLAND — Things are "pretty darn busy" for Viability LLC in Holland, according to its president, even though there are fewer prospects out there for consulting firms because of the recession.

"The number of prospects we have is reduced," said Chris Byrnes, president of Viability. On the other hand, he said, the rocky economy actually adds to the confidence some companies are feeling these days. Those are the ones, he said, that are saying "We know this economy is going to put some of our competitors out of business and we are in a position to eat everybody's lunch."

"Those are the folks we are working with now," said Byrnes.

Viability, which Byrnes founded in 2003, specializes in helping companies get grants and government incentives for expansion. It recently helped a New Hampshire company land the largest Rural Energy for America Program grant in the state and, much closer to home, helped a German company get Michigan and local incentives for a new $17 million facility in Norton Shores.

Wacker Neuson, of Munich, a manufacturer of construction equipment, received $1.6 million in state and local incentives for its new 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near U.S. 31 in Norton Shores. The firm also has manufacturing facilities in Milwaukee.

Viability helped wholesale floriculture company Pleasant View Gardens of Loudon, N.H., receive a $500,000 Renewable Energy Grant from the federal government to build a new $2 million renewable energy, biomass heating system for its 413,000 square feet of greenhouses. 

“Pleasant View Gardens wanted to switch from natural gas heating to a more energy-efficient, waste wood biomass boiler system that would reduce energy cost for the company. They were able to cut back energy costs by $776,000 annually,” said Byrnes.

He said Viability has worked for more than 100 large and small companies in 20 states.

“Our first project in 2003 was with Boar’s Head Provisions in Holland, for its $17 million expansion. We produced a $900,000 infrastructure grant for waste pre-treatment equipment plus $2.5 million in tax abatements and training grants as our part of the project,” said Byrnes.

He was the sole employee of Viability for its first four years, but the company now employs several people.

While originally focused on generating grants and tax savings for company expansions, Viability over the years has evolved into an energy consulting company for clients to help become more energy efficient and create innovative business initiatives.

"We do a lot more now in energy and the environmental projects," said Byrnes.

Viability was involved in developing a methane heating system for greenhouses for Buckley Growers in Taylorville, Ill., that saves $345,000 in energy costs annually and eliminates 41,000 tons of carbon from the air. The carbon was in the form of methane released by a nearby landfill.

Byrnes said Viability is one of a handful of companies in the Midwest that can guide clients through the carbon credit process. Companies that voluntarily reduce their use of energy sources that add carbon to the atmosphere can then sell "credits" to other companies that are required by law to reduce their carbon emissions but are unable to do so. The overall effect is less carbon entering the atmosphere, and the companies that are not reducing their carbon emissions are subsidizing others that have voluntarily invested in processes that do reduce carbon emissions.

The United States government under the Bush administration would not sign international agreements to limit carbon emissions — which would then incorporate the carbon credit exchange system — but some expect that to change under the new administration. Some U.S. corporations that are active overseas buy carbon credits.

One of the largest projects involving potential carbon credits that Viability has worked on was in Oberlin, Ohio, for Green Circle Growers. That company, which has 4 million square feet of greenhouse space, installed a $20 million biomass heating system to replace use of natural gas. Byrne said it will reduce carbon emissions by about 18,000 tons per year.

Byrnes said that as he was working on funding projects for clients, they would point out that their business is growing flowers or processing food — not energy. They would ask Viability to help them plan and execute energy innovations, said Byrnes.

"We're doing a lot of work on biomass projects," he said.

The fuel in biomass energy production is typically wood, corn, cherry pits — any natural waste material that readily burns. In West Michigan, it already includes waste wood from furniture companies, but Byrnes said Viability has sent engineers to other parts of the country to investigate use of cotton waste for fuel. There are also several projects Viability is watching that involve growing of vegetation such as switchgrass, which can be harvested, made into pellets and stored for later use as fuel.

"Options differ around the country," he said.

Some biomass projects involve generation of electricity as the end goal, but Byrnes said Viability's focus is on biomass to generate heat for plant processes, replacing the use of natural gas or fuel oil. The heat could be used in food processing or factories where freshly painted or coated parts or products need to be heat-cured in ovens.

"Our electricity system is pretty cheap and efficient" in Michigan, said Byrnes, compared to other states. So rather than trying to use biomass to generate electricity, he believes the "best use of your investment dollars on energy is to find other ways to produce heat."

Viability has broadened its services to include engineering, construction and operation through a partnership with GDK Construction Co. and GMB Architects-Engineers of Holland.

“The new partnership gives Viability the ability to finance, engineer, build and operate new facilities under a separate company, while Viability continues to work on grants to help fund the project,” said Byrnes.

Byrnes, 47, was formerly president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Foundation of Niles, Mich. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in public administration from Michigan State University and has worked in economic development since 1986 in Sanilac County as well as in West Michigan.

In the past year, Viability has moved to new offices at 44 E. Eighth St. in Holland.

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