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PENROSE — A New York company plans a waste-to-energy plant next to the Transylvania County Airport in Penrose on a tree farm beside the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.
The company, Renewable Developers Penrose 1 LLC, has filed documents with the North Carolina Utilities Commission seeking permission for the plant. The plant would use wood chips and municipal solid waste — garbage — to generate up to 4 megawatts per hour of electricity that it would sell to Duke Energy.
Similar facilities could use agricultural waste such as manure, although this one won't, medical waste, garbage, wood chips and contractor waste as fuel in a process that the owners describe as environmentally clean.
"We have a waste stream identified and we're working out details," said Matthew Ross, a Washington, D.C., attorney who is representing Renewable Developers LLC, the Bronxville, N.Y. company that plans to facility.
The developer has formed an equity partnership with the landowner, Kenneth T. Allison, who owns the Penrose land with his parents, Willie T. and Patricia Allison.
"From a general perspective, things never move at the pace you want," Ross said of the time frame. "We hope to close in the fall and start construction. The construction is about 12 months and if all goes well we could be producing and selling power by January 2015."
Opposition has already surfaced in Transylvania County, where residents started a Facebook page that drew more than 300 followers in just two days. And advocates for a greenway along the rail line are closely watching the proposal, too. While it was not clear what effect the power plant might have on the proposed Ecusta Trail, the developer's attorney said the owner does want to preserve the possibility of bringing in fuel by rail instead of truck. At first, trucks will haul in the wood chips and city garbage to be converted to electricity.
"As of this moment, there are no plans to use the potential for reopening the rail spur that exists next to the site," Ross said. "This is a very small project and all our work can be accomplished by a half dozen to a dozen trucks per day."
As the plant capacity grows, however, "it is possible we might consider reopening the rail spur to rail traffic. ... I'm not sure how active we would be but generally we would oppose rail-banking and converting the rail line to rail-to-trail."
Process described as clean
Ross describes the process as clean and pollution free; it will be as odor free as possible in handling garbage as fuel. The process will be contained and will not emit air pollution, he said. The waste-to-energy process uses a sophisticated conversion process that minimizes odor, he said. "I don't believe that there will be any appreciable amount of noise or odor from street," he said. "Right at the site it's going to smell," although that will be contained as much as possible. "In terms of air and water emissions, there should be little if any. There will be no air pollution from pyrolysis, and a small amount from the generator. It will be less than a natural gas biogenerator."
Officials with Renewable Developers have been meeting for months with Transylvania County officials on the project.
"The Transylvania County commissioners are trying to do their due diligence, just as the owner is doing theirs, to make sure that this is a project that is compatible not only with Transylvania County but Western North Carolina as well," said Mark Burrows, the county's director of planning and economic development. "We're excited about the project."
As for the rail line, "We have had discussions with Norfolk Southern." Rail officials explained some of the costs that would be involved to reopen the tracks, which have been idle for 13 years. It was not clear who would pay for repair needed to reopen the tracks.
"The county commissioners have all along said that if an industry comes along that makes sense and requires rail, that's why they have wanted to keep that open," Burrows said.
County garbage as fuel?
Ross, who described himself as an environmentalist, said waste-to-energy plants eliminate a lot more pollution than they cause.
"This could potentially remove or destroy 50,000 to 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year by eliminating it before it goes into landfill or evaporates into the atmosphere," he said. "It destroys a lot of pollution. That's why we're only working on renewable energy processes. It's interesting and ironic that a lot of the opposition comes from the environmental wing. The more we can explain the process to the community, the more we hope to garner support from our neighbors and from residents."
The 50,000-square foot facility and loading operation will take up only about two acres of the 225-acre site the developer would own, Ross said.
The developer plans a public presentation about the proposal on Thursday, April 11, at the Transylvania County library.
The first phase of the plant will employ 15 to 20 people plus five or six drivers hauling in feedstock — the raw material for the plant. Construction of the $22 million plant will create 50-70 temporary jobs, he said.
The biofuels plant would use about 100 tons of feedstock — woodchips, garbage and other fuel. Henderson County now exports about 300 tons of garbage per day, or about 15 trailer loads. A trailer carries about 20 tons.
Marcus Jones, the Henderson County engineer, said the county currently is under contract with Republic to haul garbage to a landfill in Barnwell, S.C., until July 1, 2015. There's nothing the county could do now but it has talked with the developer.
"It's very cutting edge technology," Jones said. "It's not necessarily a done deal. There are lots of challenges" in permitting a facility. "I think we're certainly interested in any of the options that we have and that's competitive with our disposal contract. That option is higher up on EPA's hierarchy of how you dispose of waste."
Some coverage has suggested that the facility will displace the Transylvania County Airport. Airport manager Randy Bagby said that's not so. The airport will remain open, he said.