Catawba County EcoComplex Opens New Biodiesel Facility

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 8, 2011

By Kathy Chaffin – At one point this summer, 12 students from four universities were doing research in the new Catawba County-Appalachian State University Biodiesel Research, Development and Production Facility.
They included undergraduates as well as some working on master’s degrees and Ph.D.s from Appalachian State, North Carolina AT&T University, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, according to Barry Edwards, who oversees the facility as director of the county’s utilities and engineering department.
When you bring together that many bright minds from diverse backgrounds, Edwards says, it creates an energy of excitement and possibility. Edwards reflects that excitement when he talks about plans for the facility, which officially opened Aug. 15 in the Catawba County EcoComplex.
In addition to saving the county hundreds of dollars a day by producing less expensive and more environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel to run the landfill equipment, he says it will offer students hands-on learning experience and ultimately improve local air quality.
The 7,381-square-foot center will facilitate the testing of biodiesel fuel being produced by companies around the region. Oils from the harvest of crops planted around the landfill’s required buffer acreage – which include sunflowers in the summer and canola in the fall – will also be tested to determine which will grow best in the local climate while producing the best oils for biodiesel fuel.
ASU contributed $1.6 million to the $3.2-million project, including $1,449,333 from grants. Catawba County funded the remaining $1.6 million from its landfill post-closure funds that the state requires to be set aside for long-term landfill maintenance following the active life of a landfill.
County officials say no local tax dollars have been – or will be –used on the facility.
Catawba County has led the state of North Carolina and much of the nation for years at reducing its carbon footprint on the environment and saving taxpayers money.
Edwards says one of the main reasons he went to work for the county was its progressive approach to dealing with waste stream. His first major project involved capturing methane gas created by the deterioration of buried garbage in the county’s landfill. The county installed three, one-Megawatt generators to convert the methane into electricity – the first public entity in the state to do it – and began selling it to Duke Energy.
Last year, Catawba County brought in $688,353 primarily from electrical sales to the utility company with some additional revenues from Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and Federal Renewable Energy Production Incentives, providing it with enough electricity to power 1,400 average size homes.
The Biodiesel Research, Development and Production Facility is the latest construction in the Catawba County EcoComplex, located about 10 miles from the county seat of Newton. The Landfill Gas-to-Energy Facility and the county landfill – formally known as the Blackburn Resource Recovery Facility – are also located in the 800-acrecomplex.
The county has partnered with private businesses, including Gregory Wood Products, a high-tech dimensional lumber facility which employs 115 people, to locate in the EcoComplex. Its byproducts of wood waste are used by another facility in the EcoComplex, PalletOne. The manufacturer’s 28 employees use wood slats from Gregory Wood Product’s waste stream to construct new pallets.
It is the goal of the Catawba County Regional EcoComplex and Resource Recovery Facility to continue recruiting private and public partners to work together to use each other’s waste products either as a source of energy (electricity, steam, or heat) or as a raw material for the production of their own product (pallets, lumber, compost, brick shapes/art).
 In addition to these shared relationships – which county officials say bring the old saying of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” into real life – the EcoComplex is also focused on making and using “green” energy and the economic development of Catawba County.
Catawba County’s attempt to turn the 500 tons of municipal and construction waste that comes into the landfill daily into a commodity was featured on a special segment on CNN. The county’s EcoComplex has also been featured in several publications and has won numerous state and national awards and grants.