NEWTON Growing up on a Wake County farm, Barry Edwards learned to find uses for what others would throw away. As Catawba Countys utilities and engineering director, hes taken that ethos to an award-winning extreme.
Edwards oversees the countys Regional EcoComplex, which has paired with the county landfill to become a center of energy enterprise and research.
From a rise overlooking the 800-acre site about 37 miles northwest of Charlotte, Edwards points out the pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle:
• Dozens of small wells dot the landfill, tapping methane gas from rotting waste. The methane fuels three engines capable of generating 3 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 1,500 homes.
• Heat from the engines is piped to a new, $3 million biodiesel facility the county and Appalachian State University operate. The fading yellow blooms of canola, whose seeds will be turned into biodiesel, color a field on the site.
• Gregory Wood Products, a lumber mill, operates on the sites northern end. Next to it a second business, PalletOne, uses wood culled from the lumber operation to make shipping pallets.
I dont think youll find one single thing here that somebody hasnt done, Edwards said, but they just havent looped it all together.
The EcoComplex is one reason Catawba Countys recycling rate, 729 pounds per capita, led the state last year, state officials say. Mecklenburg ranked 11th at 194 pounds per capita.
The fancy term for what the county began nearly two decades ago is industrial ecology. Its goal is to create a system in which public and private entities use each others waste as energy sources or raw material for new products.
Edwards puts it simply: I saw wastefulness, and my job was to rid ourselves of wastefulness.
Other N.C. counties are recognizing the revenue potential of landfill energy. Ten landfill gas-to-energy projects are being developed statewide with the help of state or federal grants, said Bob Leker, a renewable energy specialist at the N.C. Energy Office.
Gaston County finished a gas-to-energy project near its landfill last August and plans to develop an eco-industrial park that would use excess methane and waste heat. Jackson County, in the N.C. mountains, uses landfill gas to heat artisan studios and greenhouses.
Privately owned landfills also are being tapped. An 11.5-megawatt gas project will be dedicated at Republic Services Charlotte Motor Speedway Landfill in Concord on Wednesday .
For counties, electricity sales generate guaranteed income in a down economy, Leker said.
Catawba Countys sales to Duke Energy from its 3-megawatt methane project netted the county $230,000 last year. The county also sold renewable-energy certificates for $70,000 over two years.
Such projects also fit state policies aimed at boosting homegrown energy sources.
North Carolina in 2007 adopted a mandate that requires utilities to make 12.5 percent of their sales from renewable energy by 2021. Landfill gas and biomass, the organic material that includes energy crops and wood waste, could provide much of that new energy, according to a 2006 report prepared for the N.C. Utilities Commission.
The state also has a goal of replacing 10 percent of its liquid fuels with locally grown and produced biofuels by 2017. Biofuels could take advantage of two of the states largest resources, agriculture and the biotechnology industry.
Helene Hilger, director of UNC Charlottes Infrastructure, Design, Environment and Sustainability (IDEAS) Center, credits Edwards with the business smarts to translate policy goals into economic reality. Hilger has worked with Edwards on building a digester at the complex to turn food waste into methane.
Barry has been really eager to push the envelope and prove the business case, to show that (energy projects) can work, while a lot of other municipal governments have been sitting back and waiting, she said. Hes willing to put new eyes on it, do it a new way, and do the hard work of raising the funds and reaching out to universities. Hes provided incredible vision.
State waste-reduction goals established more than 20 years ago set the stage for the Catawba Countys EcoComplex. Edwards joined the staff a few years later.
Like their new engineer, the countys elected officials take a dim view of waste. Theres an expectation to maximize value and to save money for taxpayers where possible, Edwards said.
Despite the growth of the complex, landfill fees have been increased just once during Edwards tenure, when the state created a new tax. Thats despite a drop of about one-third in the volume of incoming waste.
The EcoComplex runs like a municipal utility, supporting itself through fees and other revenue.
There were miscalculations along the way.
The countys landfill gas-to-energy project, installed in 1998, was predicated on federal tax credits of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. It turned out, however, that the incentives depend on congressional appropriations that didnt come through.
The expected seven-year payback period for the $3.5 million project stretched to 13 years. You can count your chickens, Edwards said, but dont count all the eggs.
The county recruited tax-paying companies to parts of the site where soil had been excavated. Gregory Wood Products came aboard, milling 65,000 board-feet of lumber an hour.
Catawba County recruited PalletOne, the nations largest shipping-pallet maker, to open a site to make use of the lumber mills leftover wood to recycle broken pallets.
County commissioners have approved a $20 million power plant contingent on power-purchase agreements that would pay for it. Waste wood from the lumber mill and pallet plant, along with wood debris brought to the landfill, would be turned into a gas fuel capable of producing 2.5 megawatts of electricity and steam heat.
We were doing industrial ecology approaches without knowing it was industrial ecology, Edwards said. To me, it was a farmers son using what he had on hand.
The complex has earned awards from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, the National Association of Counties and the Alliance for Innovation, which promotes innovative thinking in government.
Last summer, the complex opened a $3 million biodiesel fuels research and production facility run by Appalachian State. After three years of testing canola and sunflower crops, the facility will produce its first biodiesel within a few weeks.
The goal is to produce 1,000 gallons a week from 400 acres of fuel crops, about 10 percent of the annual needs of the landfills machinery. The facility also recycles used restaurant fryer grease.
UNCC scientists are using materials from the site to research ways to produce ethanol from plant cellulose and wood, rich resources in North Carolina. The ethanol now blended with gasoline is made from starch from corn, of which the state is a net importer.
Leif Forer of the state-funded Biofuels Center of North Carolina said the complex will show the potential to grow energy crops on the unused buffer zones that surround landfills.
I think the even more exciting part comes in when theyre able to start helping the technologies for second- and third-generation biofuels, which is what it will take to reach the 10 percent goal, Forer said.