Public to weigh in on incentives for $22 million bio-gas plant

By Allen Turner

allenturner@nrcolumbus.com

The public will have a chance to weigh in on proposed county incentives for a $22 million bio-mass plant near Clarendon that would create 15-19 full-time jobs. 

The proposed Green Energy Sustainable Solutions (GESS) plant would convert hog waste, as well as silage from county farm row crops, into natural gas that would be sold to Duke Energy and possibly other power companies. In addition to the plant occupying 10 acres of farmland, another five acres will be utilized for storage of bio-mass materials.

Columbus County commissioners Monday night scheduled a public hearing to get feedback on $631,376 in proposed economic development incentives that would be paid to GESS over five years. The company would pay $825,530 in property taxes during that same period, according to estimates by Economic Developer Gary Lanier. GESS would have to pay its property taxes before receiving the incentive grant each year. 

The public hearing will be held Monday, Nov. 5, at 6:30 p.m. 

Shaun Lee, director of field operations for GESS, told commissioners in June that his company wants to build the plant on about 10 acres of the 450-acre Double B Farms at 6022 Old Stake Road. 

The plant in Clarendon would use waste from the 18,000 hogs at Double B Farms, as well as potentially waste from other hog farms in the county. It would purchase row crops such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw from other farms in the county for use in its green energy process. GESS might also purchase chicken manure from poultry farmers.

While the company has 160 plants worldwide and already operates a different sort of bio-gas plant in North Carolina, the facility in Columbus County would be the first of its kind in the state and Lee did not rule out the possible establishment of other such plants in Columbus County in the future.

Lee said in June that when the plant is operational, it will employ four to six full-time employees making $15 to $25 an hour and an additional 15-20 jobs will be created by trucking contractors serving the plant. 

“The jobs will be permanent jobs,” he said. “The people working will be long-term, 20-year or longer, employees.”

The plant will have an annual revenue stream of $14-15 million, Lee said.

“The benefit is not only that we’ll be providing clean energy in the form of bio-gas to the power company, but also that we will be working with row crop farmers to buy their products, such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw,” Lee said.

Lee said that the plant would use about 6,000 acres of row crops from local farmers annually, including 3,500-4,000 acres of corn. The crops would be purchased at premium prices under contracts of up to 20 years in length.

“The farmer will be maximizing their agricultural land, not only for one crop, but for three crops that put nutrients back into the land,” Lee said. “We’re working with N.C. State University to make sure we’re producing the proper nutrients from the plant, and then those nutrients will be put back into the soil at the proper levels.”

Although Double B Farms generates enough hog manure to supply the plant, Lee said in June that a feasibility study would also be done to determine whether materials can also be trucked in. 

“Double B Farms has enough hog manure to sustain the size of plant we’re looking at,” he said, “but if we bring in more manure from outside, it would be in sealed containers.”

He mentioned possibly trucking in chicken waste in that June meeting, prompting Commissioner Charles McDowell to voice concerns about possible odors, not only from the plant itself but also from trucks transporting chicken manure. 

“The digesters and the concrete tanks are sealed. The trucks that would bring it in are sealed, too, so you won’t get any smells,” Lee said. “Any chicken manure would be capped in and sealed with minimal ventilation and any materials would be covered. The farm would meet all air and water quality standards.”

Another benefit, the company says, is that the plant will take hog manure out of lagoons and process it for fertilizer and process the resulting methane gas into clean gas to be purchased by energy companies. The gas will be deposited into a gas pipeline to produce clean electricity. 

“By reducing the waste in hog lagoons, it will almost dry up the lagoons except for rainwater,” Lee said. “It will reduce smell and odor and stop any harmful materials from getting into the water table.”

There’s no firm timetable for when the plant will be in production. Duke Energy will be required by law to start buying gas produced by the plant no later than 2021. In the meantime, the company will work with county planners and state air and water quality personnel to make sure all zoning, land use and environmental regulations are satisfied. 

Commissioner Buddy Byrd said in June that the plant could benefit farmers from throughout the county. 

“The company can contract with area farmers to buy corn as it is harvested in July, and then the farmer can contract with them to plant sorghum as a second crop to harvest in October or November, and then put it back in wheat, and the farmer will get to keep the wheat seed,” Byrd said. Lee replied, “That’s right. We just want the straw from the wheat.”