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UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC): An Economic Engine for North Dakota

Janelle Hoffarth, was hired back by the University of North Dakota (UND) Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) as a Research Specialist in July 2008 after a nearly 10-year absence. She began her career at what was then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Grand Forks Energy Technology Centerin 1981 as a lab technician. Two years later, the U.S.government decommissioned the Grand Forks Energy Technology Centerand turned the buildings and equipment over to the university. The new UND enterprise became the EERC, which became a family to her.

“In those days, we worked on a lot of peat coal, which was fascinating,” said Hoffarth. “But what I loved about working at the EERC was that, on a personal level, the staff was so easy to get along with, and on a professional level, they were extremely creative, cutting edge, and cooperative.”

Hoffarth worked at the EERC for more than 15 years, but shortly after the 1997 flood, she reluctantly moved with her family to Cloquet, Minnesota, where her husband was promoted to a new job.

“We lived through the flood, fixed up our house, and in August we packed up and moved. I didn’t know what to expect,” Hoffarth said.

Even though it was a family decision to move, it was a tough road for Hoffarth because she never found the work–home she had at the EERC. During her 10-year absence, the family also moved around to Alexandria, Minnesota, and Wahpeton, North Dakota.

“I worked as a receptionist, in office support, a regional technical assistant, even a phlebotomist, but nothing satisfied me. Nothing measured up to the experience I had here.”

Which is why she was extremely pleased and excited to join the EERC team again, 27 years after the day she was first hired.

“I am so happy to be back! Did I mention that? It’s just wonderful to be back to a University setting again and all it has to offer,” Hoffarth continued. “Working with such great people, doing valuable work that has a reason and a purpose is wonderful.”

Today, Hoffarth works in the Fuels and Materials Research Laboratory specializing in the analysis of coal and coal by-products. She prepares samples and performs analyses, including ash fusion, heat content, energy output, moisture, and loss on ignition using various instrumentation and procedures in support of EERC projects.

“This industry has seen a lot of changes. When I first started, we were more focused on improving the way technologies worked, but now we’re much more focused on pollution control and improving the environment as a whole.”

Janelle is one of 28 new employees the EERC hired this year, and it continues to aggressively expand its staff. The EERC has a total of 15 new high-paying technical jobs open currently.

“The EERC is an incredible economic engine for the state of North Dakota and the surrounding region,” said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold. “The amount of business opportunities and technologies that are being created from research conducted at the EERC is incredible, which, in turn, impacts job creation throughout all areas of the state from west to east.”

According to DOE, just 16 of the EERC’s coal, power, oil, and natural gas projects in North Dakota totaling more than $256 million in private sector and DOE funding have created more than 7300 direct and indirect private sector jobs in the state and throughout the region. This estimate is based on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Regional Input-Output Modeling System II. On average, 28.5 direct and indirect jobs are created for each $1 million spent in research and development funding.

“The job creation estimate by DOE is based upon only a fraction of the EERC’s projects,” said Groenewold. “Our total impact on regional job creation is considerably greater.”

Sheila Hanson, EERC Marketing Research Manager, says the Department of Commerce’s formula is based on averages, so it’s similar to the concept that every family in the U.S. has 2.5 kids. “Maybe the first $1 million really generated 10 jobs and the next $10 million really generated 43 jobs and so on, but it will all average out to about 28.5 jobs,” she said.

“For example, say the EERC gets $1 million and hires ten new employees who move to Grand Forks with a spouse and 2–4 kids each, resulting in about 50 new people moving to Grand Forks,” Hanson continued. “The spouses get jobs. The kids go to school, supporting more teaching positions. A new house or two gets built, and a couple of others get remodeled. The retail and service sector benefits, too. Maybe there’s a new position at a local hardware store, a new waiter gets hired at a restaurant, and a clerk gets hired at a grocery store and so on. It’s a ripple effect.”

And Janelle Hoffarth is a perfect example of this impact. Her three children ages 26, 22, and 19, are all attending universities and getting jobs in this region.

Only 6% of the contracts at the EERC involve federal entities. Among the major programs being supported by federal funding are the Cooperative Agreement with DOE, which involves hundreds of partners supporting national energy goals; the National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT), which has more than 80 partners working to advance the production, storage, and delivery of hydrogen; and the Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership, which is a regional collaborative framework for testing and demonstrating CO2sequestration technologies. Groenewold says the EERC leverages every federal dollar with at least a two-to-one cash match from the private sector.

“This allows the research to have a much deeper impact on job creation,” he said. “And we are very fortunate to have Janelle as a part of our family once again. She is one of our proudest expatriates—one who left us for a brief while and returned happier than when she left.”