Oftentimes we focus more on what needs to be done without celebrating what is being done. I am guilty of this as well, but I do try to applaud positive steps forward where and when I can. In North Carolina there were two stories that hit the newspapers this weekend that framed the eco-energy issue. The first was on the continued push by the NC Senate to permit fracking. If you have read my earlier post on “The Perils of Fracking” and some of the subsequent posts, you know my concerns over this technique which we should avoid. The toxic water and air problems are enough to alarm you, but the impact on taking a huge amount out of the water supply should give anyone pause, especially our drought stricken friends in Texas.
Yet, on the positive front, NC continues to push forward on alternative, renewable energy. A key reason is the prescient move back in 2007 where the legislature required energy utilities to provide 12.5% of their energy from alternative energy sources by 2021. While we can argue this was not bold enough, it moved Duke Energy, Progress Energy and others forward in their thinking. In particular, Duke has been a leader in the movement, even though they still have some legacy issues they need to deal with around coal use.
The Charlotte Observer started doing a series on “Energy Crossroads.” You can find the first article at http://www.charlotteobserver.com. The series is being run due to the Charlotte (Duke Energy’s headquarter city) area having 250 companies in the alternative energy space with over 27,000 employees. Included in this area is Catawba County which has an EcoComplex that has come of age over the last several years. The EcoComplex is the area in and around a landfill. The landfill is managed as a county utility run by Barry Edwards, who purports he was taught while growing up not to waste anything.
The landfill has dozens of methane gas retrieval wells which harvest the methane gas from the deteriorating garbage and waste. This wells power three engines that generate 3 megawatts of electricity which can supply about 1,500 homes. They sell this electricity to Duke Energy who delivers it to its customers. The revenue from this sale pays for operations.
Heat from the engines is piped to a biodiesel facility operated by Appalachian State University The site is there to draw from the fading blooms of Canola whose seeds can be turned into biodiesel fuel. The biodiesel fuel averages 1,000 gallons a week.
On the northern site of the EcoComplex is a lumber mill. The waste or unused products are provided to a second business right next door to develop wood pallets for warehouse and distribution center use. This pallet company is a leading supplier of pallets in the US.
In the planning stages is a 2.5 megawatt steam-heat wood gasification plant. Edwards says “I don’t think you’ll find one single thing here that somebody else hasn’t done. But they just haven’t been looped all together.” He added, “I saw wastefulness and my job was to rid ourselves of wastefulness.” Catawba County leads the 100 counties in the State of NC in the recycling rate of 729 pounds per capita. To frame this number, Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) has an 11th best rate of 194 pounds per capita.
The nice thing about these practical efforts is the story is still being told. They continue to find ways to build on their model. I would also add that Apple and Google both are building data centers nearby. Apple will be placing solar panels on their property to both power the facility and sell excess power to Duke Energy for distribution to others. So, success truly builds off success.
Since we are concerned about jobs, rightfully so, it is also nice to point out that the EcoComplex has a current budget of $3.1 million and 19 employees. The wood products firm has 115 employees and the pallet company has 29 employees. The nice part of these success stories is they are replicable. Two counties in NC are replicating the landfill methane gas effort as of this writing. And, many counties and regions across the US and planet are doing more and more with alternative energy. It is this kind of on-the-ground ingenuity where the more elegant ideas happen. I use elegant as when it is used to in the computer systems world, it means the best solution, not the most complex one.
So, let’s celebrate the elegance, ingenuity and practicality deployed in Catawba County, North Carolina. We should do more of this and less of the fracking and other extreme fossil fuel approaches. Our future depends on it.