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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Jackson’s Green Energy Park undergoes expansion

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The Jackson County Green Energy Park is slated to get even greener with the expansion of the Smoky Mountain Biofuels’ production facility and the addition of six greenhouses on the site.

The park, established in October 2006, was built atop an old county landfill and uses methane gas to power various projects that rent out space on the property. It’s one of the only such small-scale facilities in the country, and in 2006 received the EPA’s Project of the Year Award.

So far, the park features a blacksmithing studio, a biodiesel production facility, and a visitor center. Officials hope the expansion projects will boost the park’s image and attract more full-time tenants.

 

Biofuels expansion

Recently, Jackson County commissioners gave the go-ahead to Smoky Mountain Biofuels to expand its production facility. The addition of several tanks, and a larger reactor, heat exchanger and chiller will allow the company to increase the amount of biodiesel it produces from 1 to 3 million gallons a year, according to production manager Sam Gray.

“There was no hesitation — we were in favor of the proposal from day one,” said county commissioner Chairman Brian McMahon.

The production increase goes hand in hand with increased demand prompted by Smoky Mountain Biofuels’ partnership with Western North Carolina fuel distributor Mountain Energy. Mountain Energy plans to offer the biodiesel in place of diesel fuel at 23 gas stations in the region.

“We want to make it convenient and available to the public, and it’s quality fuel,” said Mountain Energy president Thomas Morgan of the partnership.

“I think there will be a demand for alternative fuels if you can make it price competitive with other petroleum fuels,” he added.

By selling the biodiesel at close to cost, that’s exactly what Smoky Mountain Biofuels is aiming to do. A government subsidy gives the company a dollar per gallon of biodisel it produces, but Smoky Mountain Biofuels’ employees are still taking a serious pay cut by trying to offer their product at a competitive price.

“It’s called working for very cheap and having very low fixed costs,” Gray joked. “We’d love to hire people right now, but we can’t on fixed costs. It’s a challenge, especially when the markets are going up with soy rising.”

Smoky Mountain Biofuels uses soy oil from a processing plant in Georgia as the base for its product.

The company’s belief in their product is even more evident when they discuss funding the expansion.

“We can’t disclose how much we’re spending — it’s excessive,” Gray said.

Smoky Mountain Biofuels is largely funding the expansion with personal money. Gray explained that it’s difficult to get grants and subsidies, since lenders aren’t necessarily inclined to invest in non-traditional businesses that don’t have a proven track record or product. Smoky Mountain Biofuels will have to work on creating a market and demands, and then go back to the banks to secure funding.

Eventually, the company would like to employ six full-time and four part-time workers, including a chemist, controller and interns from nearby Western Carolina University. The addition of more jobs could take up to a year, depending on market conditions and public consumption of fuel, said Gray.

As for now, the company is concentrating on production of their fuel for the Mountain Energy stations.

“It’s got great potential, but there must be a consumer commitment as well. Energy independence doesn’t happen by snapping your fingers,” Gray said.

Mountain Energy has test marked the biodiesel at a Waynesville and Franklin gas station this summer. The biodiesel will be officially rolled out at all 23 stations by the end of September. “It’s been a mad dash, but I think we’ll be ready,” Gray said.

 

New greenhouses

A second component of the Green Energy Park’s expansion is the addition of six 1,500-square-foot greenhouses.

Unlike the Smoky Mountain Biofuels expansion, the greenhouses were built at minimal cost. A portion of the funding came from the Golden Leaf Foundation, which helps ex-tobacco farmers find other profitable crops, said Green Energy Park Manager Timm Muth. Scavenged materials, however, were key in keeping the greenhouse costs low.

A normal greenhouse costs from $120,000 to $150,000 to construct. Muth estimates this project costs no more than $50,000 altogether.

A retired couple in the county who kept a retail greenhouse for years had an abandoned greenhouse sitting on their property, Muth said. The owners were more than happy to offer it up to the county to get it off their property. Muth noticed that while much of the original material was in poor condition, the steel inside the structure was in pristine shape. A volunteer crew from Haywood Community College and the Jackson County maintenance crew teamed up to scavenge the steel, which likely saved the project $25,000, Muth said. Volunteer efforts to put the structure together also helped to cut down significantly on overhead costs.

The roof and walls of the greenhouses are complete. The Green Energy Park is currently soliciting bids from interested parties who want to rent out greenhouse space. An information session is planned for Sept. 5.

Two of the greenhouses will be occupied by Jackson County, which is renting the space to grow plants to landscape its buildings.

Muth said another group that has shown interest is a cooperative of Fraser fir Christmas tree growers. Fraser fir seedlings currently have to be trucked in from out of state because a disease in the North Carolina soil destroys the seeds. Otherwise, the trees thrive in the state’s environment. The growers would like to discover ways to prevent the disease.

Other businesses — including a group specializing in green roof systems and a cooperative that grows rhododendrons and azaleas — have all been proposed for the greenhouse.

“We’ll have to decide who can afford to be in there and who will provide the best return for the county in terms of additional jobs and economic impact,” Muth said.

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