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Green power: no longer a pipe dream

By Michael Beadle

At first it sounds too good to be true.

Imagine being able to pipe methane gas from a landfill to heat greenhouses, run a biodiesel refinery, and power blacksmithing forges and art studios for glassblowers and potters.

Well, imagine no more.

This summer, the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro will become one of the first sites of its kind in the state — if not the nation — to harness methane gas into a renewable energy source. In addition to saving taxpayer dollars by running machines off methane, the biodiesel produced at the site will provide cleaner, affordable fuel for county vehicles and reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide emissions that come from regular diesel engines.

The park is being built in phases. Once the methane production begins in mid-July, the biodiesel refinery, blacksmithing and greenhouses are scheduled to open in early October. The metalworking area, housed behind the biodiesel business, Smoky Mountain Biofuels, will include a blacksmithing workshop, foundry and casting areas. Six greenhouses will eventually be on site. A separate warehouse will contain two glassblower studios and two pottery studios set to open in spring of 2007. Additional meeting rooms and even a retail gallery and cafe are scheduled to open the following year.

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This “trash-to-treasure” concept is coming to fruition thanks to broad-based support from county commissioners, local and state agencies, local businesses and three visionaries who will be working at the Green Energy Park — Timm Muth, project manager of the park, and Sam Gray and Al Begley of Smoky Mountain Biofuels.

It’s the kind of opportunity you hope for all your life, Muth explained.

Muth, Gray and Begley converged on the project at about the same time. Muth had an extensive career in engineering, Begley was involved in eco-friendly contracting, and Gray taught environmental applications as a seventh-grade math teacher at Cullowhee Valley School.

Muth, who came to Jackson County about three years ago to start a mountain biking tour guide service, found his dream job when county commissioners were considering what to do with the Dillsboro landfill that had become a potential health hazard.

To tap the landfill’s methane gas for energy, five feet of soil was put on top of the landfill, then wells were drilled into the ground to suck up the gas. Once the park is up and running, the methane will get channeled into a pipeline like natural gas and used for a variety of purposes on site — everything from heating glass blowers, firing wood kilns and powering blacksmithing equipment to heating greenhouses that will grow botanicals and dry herbs. The county’s cooperative extension service is looking into growing various plants and seedlings, and researchers may soon be able to try out new agricultural techniques in an eco-friendly classroom. There are all sorts of applications.

Muth estimates that the methane will produce about 1.2 million BTU’s per hour (one BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is the equivalent of a kitchen match, and 70,000 BTU’s would be produced by a residential gas furnace). So with this source of power, a pipe dream became a reality and fueled yet another green-energy venture: biodiesel.

At the Dillsboro site, Smoky Mountain Biofuels will collect vegetable oil — anything from canola oil to corn, peanut, soybean and mustard oil — process it through several purification tanks that extract glycerin and particulates, and produce a biodiesel that any regular diesel truck could put in its tank without any retrofitting, Begley explained.

In fact, Gray added, since the purified biodiesel is a natural lubricant, it actually runs cleaner than regular diesel fuel — and without the sulphur particulates that can cause lung cancer and asthma.

Biodiesel has become more widely known thanks to stars like Willie Nelson, Darryl Hannah and Bonnie Raitt using and promoting it. In fact, when Raitt recently came through Western North Carolina, she filled up all her tour buses with biodiesel.

“Biodiesel is not a new thing,” Begley said. When Rudolph Diesel invented his engine, he intended for farmers to use biodiesel, Begley explained, but oil was so cheap.

Until now.

Thanks to the recent spike in oil prices, biodiesel being sold at $3 a gallon doesn’t sound so outrageous, and it won’t have the same price fluctuations that oil has on the market. If North Carolina Senate Bill 1150 goes through, 30 cents will be removed from the road tax for biodiesel, making it all the more affordable.

Even before the Jackson County Green Energy Park will have its biodiesel operation running, Begley and Gray have already received all sorts of interested clients ranging from private businesses, the county government, the school system, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and the Cullowhee Fire Department.

“As it becomes more affordable, more will jump on the bandwagon,” Gray said.

The biodiesel will be refined at the park and then taken in barrels and tanks to local businesses and agencies that request it. In addition, Gray and Begley will be available to install catalysts to retrofit buses, trucks, tractors and other vehicles. And come this fall, Smoky Mountain Biofuels will have biodiesel available as a home heating oil (#2) for furnaces.

After sinking six-figure sums into starting up the business, Begley and Gray expect Smoky Mountain Biofuels to be pumping out a million gallons or more a year. At about $3 a gallon or less, that’s a handsome profit.


The first of its kind

There are other sites in North Carolina that harness methane gas as an energy source — a site in Burnsville uses methane to heat pottery kilns and an East Carolina University center uses methane to incinerate medical waste. But the Dillsboro park is believed to be the first of its kind in the state that will power a biodiesel refinery and have a wide variety of other applications in a readily accessible location — just a half mile from U.S. 441, which links up with Atlanta, and minutes away from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the United States.

“People in the community are so supportive of what we’re trying to do here,” Muth said.

Early on in the process, Muth and county leaders held community meetings to find out how the Green Energy Park could help local businesses and residents. That input has helped in the designs and has also helped to foster relationships with dozens of state and local agencies. Muth continues to meet regularly each week with Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland and constantly tries to explain the program to everyone he meets — even inmates doing trash pick-up.

For Muth, an electrical engineer with a lengthy career working with just about every energy source from nuclear to coal to wind and solar, the park offers a wealth of opportunities. There’s economic empowerment, offering a low-cost fuel that helps local customers and businesses. There’s environmental protection, preventing methane from becoming a greenhouse gas. And then there’s education, offering students and adults a chance to see how renewable energy works and opening up innovative ways to use art studios and greenhouses.

County leaders are also looking to use the park as a model that other counties might want to consider. The more who hear about this one-of-a-kind park, the more other county leaders and businesses from across the state and nation will want to visit, and that could attract other green-friendly industries and researchers.

“For me, this is the greatest job in the world,” Muth said. “I just believe in the project. For me, this is a moral journey.”

Having worked in the nuclear industry where saw first-hand how spent fuel rods became the most dangerous fuel in the country, Muth said he wanted to be in a position to protect the environment and leave a positive legacy for his four children.

Since being hired by Jackson County in October of last year, Muth has been hard at work with Gray and Begley cleaning up the park property. Only months ago, there were junk cars, bed springs, car parts, a million broken bottles — all kinds of trash that had been dumped there by former businesses that owned the property and afterwards when the county took over the site. Some 550 tons of loose trash and three dumpsters have been cleared from the property, according to Muth.

Now there are flat spaces to build greenhouses, which will be able to grow everything from landscaping materials to seedlings for local Christmas tree farms to native plants and more.

“We’re kind of looking at all the options right now, seeing what’s best for the community,” Muth said.

And if there’s not enough recycling going on already, Muth is looking into ways to capture rainwater that can be used in the art studios and greenhouses.

“We like to say we’re using everything but the squeal of the pig,” Muth said.

What was once thought to be fringe science or hippie tree-hugger business is now becoming more accepted as a mainstream idea.

“It’s here right now,” Muth said.

Artists who work at the park will be able to rent a fully furnished studio space under a three-year contract with free methane gas to power machines, kilns and heavy-duty machines that often cost a small fortune to starving artists. A $1,000-a-month power bill for a glass blower can be a little overwhelming for a start-up artist, but the Green Energy Park will take away that cost, Muth explained. Already, the park has formed partnerships with Handmade in America, Western Carolina University’s ceramics department, and local art studios that could benefit from having artists utilize the studio space.

“I think it’s great thing, and this area’s ready for it,” said Mark Karner, who runs Fiery Gizzard studio in Jackson County. Karner, a potter for 11 years, was hired as a consultant to lend his expertise in setting up the pottery studios at the Green Energy Park.

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