On the Verge of Transforming the Energy Industry
by Darren Fraser
Emmetsburg’s Easy Energy Systems’ demonstration plant stands on the brink of revolutionizing the energy industry and transforming the lives of farmers, third-world residents and, potentially, fire prevention practices.
Mark Gaalswyk is the CEO and founder of the company. Gaalswyk got his start in process automation when he founded Easy Automation Inc. Today, the company is one of the largest providers of feed mills in North America.
Gaalswyk’s goal is to produce his modular power plants on an assembly line, not unlike how cars are produced. “That is the long-term vision. To produce modules and create hundreds of local jobs,” he says.
Easy Energy Systems started its Emmetsburg operation in 2006. “We chose Emmetsburg,” says Gaalswyk, “because there was already an interest in developing renewable energy here.” Overtime, the company acquired assets from another company and combined those assets with Gaalswyk’s patented technology and grew the company. Today, the Emmetsburg operation occupies three buildings that house a complete Modular Energy Production System or MEPS plant and components of others.
To assist visitors and reporters wrap their minds around modular technology, Gaalswyk uses Legos to illustrate the design. He did not have Legos for this interview but sketched out the concept.
“You want to convert your corn stover to sugar,” says Gaalswyk. “He,” and here Gaalswyk points to Lyle Larsen, project manager of the Emmetsburg plant, “wants to convert straw to something else. We plug in your module to the system to meet your needs; we plug in his to meet his needs.”
Easy Energy Systems has quoted 1,300 plants. Gaalswyk is quick to point out the difference between a quote and a sale. “Before we build, the customer must come here and see what it does with his particular feedstock. Then we sign an order.” Thirteen hundred quote works out to roughly 13,000 modules, each about half the size of a standard shipping container.
Easy Energy Systems brings the mountain to Mohammed. Gaalswyk expects 80 percent of sales to come from overseas, which aligns perfectly with the company’s business model. “We don’t have to send workers to a village in Africa and try to put them up in a non-existent hotel while they work on the unit,” he says. The units will be built assembly-line style per a customer’s specifications and shipped to the customer’s location.
Gaalswyk does not see any competition from big outfits, such as Poet or AGP. “Two different worlds,” he says. “Poet does their big-plant thing and our focus is on smaller, modular scale.
This is not to say the company has not experienced pushback. Gaalswyk says the company in collaboration with Iowa State University were in the running for a $15 million government grant to be divided among four finalists to study renewable energy applications. “During our interview, we learned the grant budget had been reduced to just two finalists and we lost out”
MEPS plants can produce sugars and phenolic oils derived from phenolic compounds in seeds. Sugars and phenolic oils are used to produce Lignocol, a coal substitute that does not produce ash.
Says Gaalswyk, “We proved that you can mix in 30 percent of Lignocol with a coal-fired powerplant and you can keep the powerplant running, keep 70 percent of the jobs and satisfy the Paris Accords [Climate Agreement]. We did a study that proved we could create billions of dollars for farmers and keep coal plants running. The new [Trump] administration just wanted to keep burning coal.” Shortly after assuming office, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.
Another application of the technology could help reduce the likelihood of forest fires. Gaalswyk mentions a beetle infestation that resulted in the deaths of 120 million trees on California forests. These dead trees become the kindling that fuels the massive blazes that have plagued the state in recent years.
“Lawrence Livermore Labs selected ISU and our company to develop technology to convert dead trees into fuels,” says Gaalswyk. “We place our units in the forest and process the trees onsite. We can create ethanol or generator or ship fuels. Whatever they want.”
The company produces 20 different production modules. Gaalswyk envisions an assembly line to produce the modules. At present, an order may take up to six months to complete, but this timeframe drops significantly when units can roll off an assembly line “like a Caprice,” says Gaalswyk.
“The hardest part is convincing people the technology works,” he adds. “That’s the reason why we built the Emmetsburg facility, so we could demonstrate it.”