A biomass energy company broke ground Wednesday on a facility that will create 52 new jobs in Monticello.

Zilkha Biomass Energy, a producer of biomass solutions to electric utility customers, will manufacture Zilkha Black Pellet, the first commercially available pellet in the biomass industry.

At a ground-breaking ceremony at a Monticello industrial park Wednesday morning, Larry Weick, senior vice president for business development for Zilkha Biomass Energy, said the $90 million project will not only be one of Zilkha’s largest plants, it will be one of the largest pellet plants in Arkansas.

“This Monticello plant will expand and strengthen our ability to deliver this new, next-generation pellet to the energy industry,” Weick said. “Many parts of the world are blessed with a lot of solar and a lot of wind; Arkansas is blessed with a lot of trees, so this is a great way for Arkansas to participate in what we believe is a world-wide growing market for renewable energy.”

Made from a variety of feedstock, such as residuals and other low-grade wood, wood pellets are used in the energy industry as an alternative fuel source. They can be integrated into coal-fired plants to create cleaner emissions, allowing plants to more easily comply with clean air regulations and energy companies to build fewer new power plants, according to a news release from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who was on hand for the announcement and groundbreaking, said it is perfectly fitting that Zilkha chose Monticello for its new facility since it is home to the University of Arkansas at Monticello, the state’s only school of forestry.

Beebe said it has been his thinking for as long as he can remember that South Arkansas’ timber industry can and should provide the real impetus for the next generation of renewable energy.

“I had thought by this time we would see the development of motor fuels with cellulosic material,” Beebe said. “I have not given up on that; I think it is still a possibility down the road… but this is an example of how we use South Arkansas’ natural resources, primarily our timber industry, to be able to provide new, renewable energy sources for the world.”

While the primary users of the pellets are in Europe and Asia, the replacement of coal with this renewable energy is something that is sweeping the entire industry and will continue to grow, Beebe said.

“And the fact that it is sustainable, the fact that it is renewable, only adds to our comfort level in regards to our energy needs as the world’s population continues to explode,” Beebe added.

Beebe lauded Monticello’s elected and business leaders in their efforts.

“If not for the local effort, there’s nothing we can do on the state level to make things actually happen,” Beebe said. “The folks in Drew County — and even the surrounding counties — deserve a great deal of credit for the celebration that we have today.”

Bennie Ryburn, III, president of the Monticello Economic Development Commission, said the groundbreaking of this new industry is a part of a cooperative effort of a number of entities, including the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Drew County, the city of Monticello, and others.

“The trust and faith that people have had … in this project is monumental,” Ryburn said. “It is something we have not seen in the past, but it needs to be a new model for what we do going forward.”

Pictured above (from left): Larry Weick, senior vice president for business development for Zilkha Biomass Energy; Gov. Mike Beebe; Stephanie Mire, manager of U.S. business development for Zilkha; Brian Reed, biomass manager for Zilkha; Drew County Judge Robert Akin; Bennie Ryburn, III, president of the Monticello Economic Development Commission; and Monticello Mayor Joe Rogers.