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A Green Power House Rises in Cellulose Valley: How the Flathead Valley is Helping Fund Its Own New Energy Economy

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Diagram of AACT Technology by Algae Aqua-Culture Technology

But building a new technology business is an act of personal commitment and energy that few can ever imagine. The story of AACT's development reveals another important component of the almost magical chemistry of becoming a successful business in this economy--the attraction of local investors and volunteers. It's that "if you build it they will come" kind of magic that has been so essential to AACT's success to date. Smith, who has basically worked day and night on the project since late 2008, says there's something going on here that he's never experienced before, "I've worked many high tech projects, including several for NASA, Intel, Disney, and Electronic Arts, but this is by far the most fulfilling and enriching project I've ever worked on, and the basis of that is the many, many people who have stepped to the plate and contributed freely of their time, dollars, and efforts to this amazing process."

The image of "players" (in this case volunteers and investors) emerging from the forest, as opposed to the cornfields of the movie "Field of Dreams," better fits the Flathead. And from this forest image a truly amazing team of players has emerged to move the AACT partnership forward. Early to come were local individual investors like Joan Shoemaker and Brad Oen, who found their way to the project and put significant chunks of their personal savings into it. Brad Oen points out: "This is a great project. I want it to succeed, and that's more important than holding on to my dwindling retirement dollars."

Others including Dick Swope, a retired Inspector General of the Air Force, living in the Flathead, became heavily involved. Swope was appointed AACT's Chairman of the Board in February 2009 [2]. Robin Kelson, a botanist, ecologist and former Boston intellectual property rights attorney, has become a full-time contributor because, she says, the project has such huge potential to sustainably generate renewable sources for the planet's depleted fuel, soil, water and food.

In late 2010, Michael Smith and I, aided by the business insights of Dick Swope and Whitefish resident John Murdock, were able to capture a highly competitive Recovery Act grant awarded by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, (with vetting for the grant by the DOE program environment manager under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), headquartered at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado). From that incredible jumpstart  the now almost-completed, eight-sided, energy and fertilizer production plant began its rise. 

Again, the construction phase of the project relied on the amazing and largely volunteer help of many. To name just a few, given space limitations, Michael's do-everything partner, Diane Carter; master carpenter Sean Carter, who, on his own time, manifested Smith's vision and built the smaller project demonstration building in 2010; business consultant Adam de Yong, who is now providing extensive input into the business' structure and documentation; concrete artisan Rex Smith and his sons, who have been traveling from Salt Lake to provide the concrete work; and entomologist Evan Sugden, who paid his own way to Hawaii to meet with the many interested governmental and private parties there--as well as the many dedicated electronics, construction, materials and greenhouse specialists who, though unnamed, are profoundly central to this success story.

Janet Morrow, another early investor in the project, is a community builder and co-producer of the acclaimed documentary film, Fuel. She sees her investment as an investment in a new, renewable, "locally controlled," Flathead community. She goes on to explain that communities that are mostly dependent on extraction cannot control their economic fortunes, since they get low value for their raw material exports, and then have to pay dearly for the manufactured goods finished elsewhere and then re-imported at a premium. Morrow said "In healthy economies, dollars continue to circulate locally as local producers and consumers exchange dollars many times, while an extraction economy sends those dollars quickly and permanently elsewhere." Morrow emphasized that this return to local investment and control needs to become viral. "People need to move beyond thinking they must fight over dividing a limited pie. Instead, they need to develop technologies that expand the pie so that all may be profitably employed and nourished."

The story of AACT and how it has grown has become a tale of a magical and amazing journey thanks to what so many in the local community have given! And that's the real point of this article. Amazing things are possible when individuals and communities come together to invest, to share, to imagine-- even in these challenging/changing economic times!! Speaking of investment opportunities, company cofounder, Michael Smith is not bashful in saying, "We're still looking for a few more strategic investors, to bring this vision to full realization." After all, the request is made in that magical spirit of believing "if you build it they will come," which has already been demonstrated so clearly by the Flathead's investors and volunteers, whose efforts infuse the twenty-first century production plant now rising just west of Columbia Falls.

For more pictures of the project and more information, interested parties can go to the Algae Aqua-Culture Technology page on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Algae-Aqua-Culture-Technology/179128458804007



Green Power House, January, 2012 by Steve Corrick

Author Steve Corrick, a Missoula, MT realtor, is a partner in AACT. Co-author Mayre Flowers is Executive Director of the Citizens for a Better Flathead. 

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[1] Much like the innovation and investment that created the "Silicone Valley" in California and gave birth to much of the computer technology we take for granted today, the Flathead Valley and other rural natural resource areas have the potential to give birth to new industries that can add significant value to cellulose in wood or other biomass waste products. http://www.cellulosevalley.net

[2] Dick Swope, tragically, died suddenly while skiing at Big Mountain in early January, 2011, having spent his last morning watching the pouring of the concrete platform on which the Green Power House (named in his honor) now stands.

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Steve Corrick is an investor/developer of real estate, biomass-based renewable energy and soil technologies, and a long-time fighter for paper-ballot-based elections and for sustainable use and renewal of the world's bioresources.


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