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Jackson Green Energy Park gets its day in the sun

The Jackson County Green Energy Park took center stage last week as Governor Bev Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission dropped in for a tour, touting the initiative as a model of the new green economy.

Perdue spent about an hour watching artisan demonstrations, and visiting with state and local leaders at the park, which uses landfill methane gas to power a blacksmith’s shop and a glass-blowing studio. She even left with an armful of Christmas presents, having purchased hand-blown vases and cheese spreaders forged in the blacksmith’s shop.

For the park’s director Timm Muth, the tour was an opportunity to emphasize the human side of green science.

“What I wanted them to take away even more than just the fact that we use landfill gas is that the park is an example of people thinking outside the box to meet the energy needs and the economic needs of our local community,” Muth said.

The Jackson County Green Energy Park has received $100,000 in grants from the ARC since 2007, and it’s rapidly becoming a showcase as a creative use for small-scale methane gas, a byproduct of decomposing trash.

In the past year, Muth has hosted visitors from Ukraine, Mexico, India and China who have come to see how the landfill methane can drive the furnaces that power the park’s glass blowing and blacksmith shops.

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“It helps provide a buzz so people can get interested in green energy,” Muth said. “When they’re standing 10 feet from one of these glory holes and they feel the heat or see a blacksmith melting steel, they see how it works.”

Local blacksmith John Burtner has rented shop space at the park for the past two years. Burtner uses a modified methane furnace to heat his metal at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees. He says his energy source is part of the marketing appeal of his final product.

“As far as I know, I’m the only blacksmith that uses landfill gas to forge,” Burtner said. “I make sure when I show in a gallery to let people know it’s a green energy product, and it’s a huge selling point.”

The green energy park is also an example of how county government can attract state money by taking a risk. Methane levels in the county’s landfill were dangerously high. It would cost $400,000 to simply remediate the problem. Instead the county put that money toward a more ambitious project.

“We were going to have to spend money one way or another, and I’d been studying methane uses for some time,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “The technology had changed to open up the possibility for small landfills.”

Jackson County followed in the footsteps of a similar project at a landfill near Burnsville, another small mountain town.

Since its opening, the park has landed more than $600,000 in state and federal grants, including $140,000 from the State Energy Office and $120,000 from the N.C. Rural Center.

When the park first began tapping its methane reservoirs, Muth estimated there was a 25-year supply of gas. Westmoreland said last week there’s enough methane now to tap 10 more wells. The county is currently in the process of adding a pottery studio at the complex that will require more energy to heat the kilns.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the park showed how the region is working to implement Perdue’s push towards a renewable energy economy using local, state and federal dollars.

“In effect, we’re recycling,” Haire said.  “You couldn’t do anything with methane for years, and we started this project five years ago and now it’s creating jobs. It’s the first step towards a renewable economy.”

For County Chairman Brian McMahan, the tour was a gratifying chance to see the reward for making an environmentally sound decision.

“We had a vision when we were told by the state that we had methane levels we needed to deal with,” McMahan said. “We could have flared it off and put it into the environment, but we put our heads together and this is what we came up with.”

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