SOBE Energy Steams Ahead, Embraces New Era

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Within the next two weeks, passersby along the far west end of downtown should notice a dramatic change to the skyline.

Four large, steel steam stacks that tower above the former Youngstown Thermal plant on North Avenue are coming down, signifying a new era in how energy, heat and cooling services are delivered to downtown customers, its new owner said Wednesday.

“It’s going to be very modern. It’s going to be a complete automation system,” David Ferro, CEO of SOBE Thermal Energy Systems, says of his plans to revitalize the plant.

SOBE, based in Dublin, Ohio, purchased Youngstown Thermal out of receivership in December 2021 after more than two years of managing its operations, Ferro said. The company provides district heating and cooling services to 35 customers in or near downtown.

While under SOBE management, the company repaired or replaced significant portions of the old steam pipes in order to stabilize its delivery network. Once the official sale was finalized, Ferro said SOBE could now turn its attention to redeveloping the entire operation.

Ferro said his company plans to ultimately invest $500 million “minimum” into its operations in the Mahoning Valley. This includes $200 million in upgrading the Youngstown plant and another $300 million in Youngstown and Lowellville, where the company plans to build a gasification plant that would be used to produce feedstock for the North Avenue site from recycled waste such as tires.

Demolition to the Youngstown Thermal location has begun.

Demolition has begun on a building constructed in 1947 that once housed Youngtown Thermal’s boilers. Those boilers, Ferro said, were woefully inefficient. The towering stacks atop of the facility are scheduled to come down within the next two weeks.

“If we wanted to supply 30,000 pounds of steam through the distribution network, then we’d have to make 60,000 pounds,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the kind of situation.”

Today, a single boiler that operates outside the building provides enough steam to supply its downtown customers, Ferro said. “We’re at 75% efficiency now versus 30% when we took it over.”

Using the external boiler also enabled the company to begin demolition without disrupting service to its customers, he said.

As more customers join the system, it will require additional capacity. Ferro said the plan is to install three new boilers in a brick building that was built during the first decade of the 20th century.

Youngstown State University, for example, has agreed to join the SOBE system, Ferro noted. This alone would require the addition of another boiler, he said.

The buildings will be outfitted with some of the most sophisticated technology in the business, Ferro said. “This is state of the art technology – everything that is being utilized in aerospace companies, your universities, and your hospitals,” he added. “Complete automation is critical.”

Inefficient coal-fed boilers will be replaced with dual-purpose boilers, the CEO said. That means the boilers are able to operate on standard natural gas, but also synthetic gas that would be produced by SOBE.

“The innovation we’re bringing to the site is running on a renewable technology,” he said. “Our model is to get paid to make the energy,” and remove the costs of purchasing energy to operate the system.

Ferro explained that the company has plans to build a tire and plastics recycling facility in Lowellville that is able to convert this waste into reusable gas. That gas would be trucked to Youngstown to serve its boiler system.

Once SOBE’s plant is at full capacity, it is likely to employ between 20 and 30 people, Ferro said. Most of the work would be relegated to maintenance on the approximately seven miles of pipe in the ground that makes up the network. “There needs to be a distribution crew that’s continuously maintaining all of that.”

Plus, the company would be looking to staff chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers, boiler operators and traditional operating crew, he said.

Another 20 employees would also be needed in Lowellville, he said.

“We’re in negotiations to acquire land in Lowellville,” Ferro said. Development of that site would occur simultaneously with the Youngstown upgrades.

Joey Ferro, a relative of Ferro’s who’s been an employee at SOBE for a year, says he joined the company and Youngstown project to learn the intricacies of the business.

“Hopefully here soon, I’ll start working on a degree through YSU,” he said. The younger Ferro is pursuing a career in engineering. “I’ve got a little bit of background working in the engineering field, but I haven’t got a degree.”

The CEO added that SOBE is working closely with YSU to help create a curriculum in recycling technology in which successful students could realize job opportunities with the company.
“We want to keep our young here, our educated here so that we can continue to expand,” he said. “Innovation comes from innovation. There’s a lot of talent coming out of YSU and we need to keep them here.”

He emphasized the new operation also provides long-standing benefits to the community.

“We’re cleaning up waste streams that would otherwise go into a landfill and creating jobs through that,” he said. “We’re revitalizing an old system and bringing it back to the community.”

Moreover, Ferro said clients that join a highly efficient system stand to benefit from lower-cost heating and cooling services.

Currently, the system has 35 customers and is in the process of adding three more. “We are growing,” he said.

Ferro said he has plans to replicate this system across the country and has identified approximately 25 sites in the U.S. and its territories.

“Our goal is to be the lowest cost-system in the world,” Ferro said. “We can accomplish that with the technology that we have.”

Pictured left to right: David Ferro, CEO of SOBE Thermal Energy Systems and Joey Ferro, an employee at SOBE.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.