Commissioners Agree to Lease Land to Wood Burning Facility

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Columbus County Commissioners agreed to lease five to 10 acres of land at the landfill near New Hope to Columbus Renewable Energies.

The start-up firm is looking to use wood chips from leaf and limb debris to generate electricity and will build a plant worth about $15 million on the leased property, county officials say.

The vote to approve County Manager Bill Clark, County Attorney Mike Stephens and Economic Developer Gary Lanier to negotiate the terms of a lease came with little discussion and was not on the agenda.

“I just found this out at four o’clock today,” Lanier said.

Without giving additional detail, Lanier said the company had learned that “things in Raleigh on Dec. 1 would make it difficult for the project to be viable unless they apply by Dec. 1 and had a signed lease agreement” with the county.

“It’s a $15 million investment and they are not asking for incentives,” Lanier told commissioners. “The return would be $88,150 per million.”

Lanier suggested that the land be leased at a price comparable to farmland, he said.

He suggested $80 to $100 per acre.

County Commissioner James Prevatte made the motion to approve the request with Commissioner Buddy Byrd seconding the motion. The lease is contingent upon construction, officials said, but no other requirements were specified during the meeting.

“It’s at no cost to us,” Chairman Amon McKenzie said.

In September, Cy Jamison, president of Columbus Renewable Energy, shared his firm’s plans to use wood chips to fuel a $22-$26 million electricity generating facility on land at the former landfill.

Jamison said the plant would produce 10 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 10,000 average homes.

“This is not a big one,” Jamison said. “It’s small.”

Jamison said the plant would have operating costs in the $2.3 to $2.6 million range and use methane gas already being collected at the plant in its process. Steam from the process could be used in greenhouses owned by the college at the site, he said.

“We’ve been looking at this almost a year,” Jamison said, adding that there is ample waste wood available to feed the project.

An N.C. State University study showed that 1.2 million tons of such wood waste is available annually in the region and the project proposed would take just 150,000 tons, he said.

“It’s something positive from an economic standpoint,” Jamison said, adding that the project would not include the burning of treated wood or hazardous materials.

“This is only clean wood,” Jamison said. “This is a green project.”

Leadership was important, he said.

“You’ve got to have good people to run a project like this,” Jamison said, adding that Southeastern Community College’s programs were an attractive bonus.

“This will expand your tax base and your jobs base,” Jamison said.

The plant will offer “good-paying” jobs, he said. “The manager will make about $80,000 to $100,000 and there will be technicians.”

Jamison suggested the plant, which will purchase its wood product from multiple suppliers, would have added economic benefit to landowners thinning their forestland, transporters and suppliers.

“It will create spin-off jobs in the wood industry within a 50-mile radius,” Jamison said.

He added the plant could accept leaf and limb waste from local towns, saving landfill space and reducing costs to customers.

The project hinges on securing an agreement with a utility company, such as Duke Energy, and private financing.

Jamison, who resides in Montana, is a former Director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Bush Administration from 1989 to 1993, according to officials.

His interest in a project at the landfill came via another business connection he has to Columbus County via the Boys and Girls Homes of Lake Waccamaw.

The Lake Waccamaw non-profit is a client of Ken Woosley and Associates, a professional firm that provides public relations and federal government relations counseling to a variety of organizations throughout the nation.

Boys and Girls Home President Gary Faircloth said through that connection he met Jamison. Faircloth subsequently introduced Jamison to Gary Lanier, county economic developer.

The request, though met with no caution Monday night, was met with caution in September.

“I don’t think we need to make the mistake we made before,” Prevatte said a few months ago, alluding to a trash-to-diesel plant that never came to fruition at the county landfill.

Commissioners gave Lanier their blessing in continuing to work with Columbus Renewable Energy and seek more information at that time but none of that information has been shared in any public meetings.

Jamison told commissioners in September he was impressed with the welcome he received from county staff, Lanier and Public Works Director Kip McClary.

Jamison said most places give you many reasons “why you can’t do something. It is refreshing to see somebody who wants to do something.”

In August 2007, the state legislature adopted new energy legislation that created the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS).

Electric power companies in the state are required to increase production and use of renewable energy. such as  solar, wind, hydropower and biomass, which includes wood burning.

The state also included hog waste and poultry litter burning in the requirements.

Production must equal 3 percent of retail electricity sales in 2012, according to the N.C. Public Utilities Commission Annual Report on renewable energy.

The amount gradually increases to 10 percent of retail sales by 2018 for certain providers and 12.5 percent of retail sales by 2021 for public utilities.

Debate exists among various groups regarding whether wood burning should be considered a green energy.

In 2010, the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians issued a letter of concern over the development of biomass burning plants in the state.

“Biomass burning of poultry litter and wood wastes creates emissions of particulate matter that research has shown increase the risk of premature death, asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart disease,” an April 19, 2010 letter signed by Dr. R.W. “Chip” Watkins reads.

There are several coal burning plants in North Carolina that have converted to biomass use in recent years. Coastal Carolina Clean Power in Kenansville and Epcor, a plant near Southport, is among them.

 

By NICOLE CARTRETTE, Staff Writer, The News Reporter