March 31, 2023

North Central: Fueling the Future

Focus on alternative energies and technology bodes well for growth in this dynamic region.

Ginger Broslat | 9/24/2009

North Central Florida
Demographics for the North Central Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.
Regional Assets

• Central Florida Community College
• Lake City Community College
• North Florida

Community College
• Santa Fe College
• University of Florida

• Gainesville Regional Airport
• Ocala International Airport
It’s sad but true: rural communities frequently lose their “best and brightest” to more enticing urban locations. Clay Bethea, a 7th-generation Floridian, is bucking that trend.

After earning an undergraduate degree (and playing football) at the University of Central Florida, then pursuing graduate studies in mechanical engineering at Auburn, Bethea was on a ???career path that could have taken him just about anywhere. He came home instead to Perry, Florida, where for the last 14 years, he has worked for Buckeye Technologies, a major producer of cellulose from slash pine.

Headquartered in Perry, Buckeye’s Florida operation directly employs 580 people. Another 1,000-plus jobs have been created through vendor relationships that support the local plant’s operations. From his vantage point as Buckeye’s wood sustainability business development manager, Bethea believes those already-impressive job numbers are about to change for the better, and here’s why.

In 2007, Bethea saw a request for proposals from the University of Florida for a pilot facility to determine the feasibility of making ethanol from plant and wood cellulose. The technology, developed under the direction of UF Distinguished Professor Dr. Lonnie Ingram, could potentially reduce our nation’s dependence on petroleum.

“Ethanol produced from corn is too expensive,” says Bethea. “You just can’t meet the demand using a food product.” But, he says, every living plant contains cellulose, and by growing managed crops specifically for ethanol production, a sustainable source of the raw material can be readily and cost effectively maintained.

Clay Bethea
Energy cane grown by Buckeye Technologies near Perry will provide new sources of nonfood biomass for the University of Florida’s pilot bio refinery. Clay Bethea expects the resulting research to identify processes that will make the ethanol produced from cellulosic products a cost-effective alternative to petroleum.
“I knew this pilot plant was the opportunity of a lifetime and could mean true economic sustainability for Taylor County,” says Bethea.

Buckeye submitted a proposal and was ultimately awarded the $20-million pilot plant project in June 2009. State funding will support construction; a $25-million grant for operations is pending with the U.S. Department of Energy.

And now Bethea is excited on two fronts: about the opportunities available to Buckeye and about the role he’ll be playing in creating economic sustainability for Perry, Florida. “I’m gratified to be helping my hometown,” he says.

Tags: North Central, Business Florida

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