Buncombe commissioners: It’s a gas

Drill baby drill: Bioreactor manager Kristy Smith stands next to a methane well at the Buncombe County Landfill. The gas is produced as trash decomposes and is then used as fuel to generate electricity. photo by Max Cooper

The Buncombe County commissioners are hoping a new program at the landfill will exemplify an old proverb: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Their April 3 meeting featured a presentation on the "Landfill Gas-to-Energy Project.”

In development for several years, the project uses methane gas produced as trash decomposes to generate electricity. A series of methane wells and a huge generator were installed in 2011, and while production began earlier this year, it’s only now reaching full capacity. The generator is expected to produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity   enough to power about 1,100 homes per year, according to Planning Director Jon Creighton.

The roughly $4.5 million project was funded mostly by federal stimulus money, including $2.6 million in grants and a $1.5 million no-interest loan, he explained. The remainder came from a federal allocation arranged by Rep. Heath Shuler's office.

Selling the electricity to the French Broad Electric Membership Corp. is expected to bring in about $500,000 a year, said Creighton, cautioning that much of the money will be needed to cover the costs of maintaining the complex equipment. Still, Creighton said he does expect the county to turn an unspecified profit.

"So we're taking a product that we were out there burning off, and now we're producing electricity … and we're going to make some money," Creighton told the commissioners. He also touted the environmental benefits: reducing the amount of methane (a harmful greenhouse gas) released into the atmosphere.

"This one’s a green project to the hilt," Creighton declared. "I feel like it's a great project. I thought we hit a home run all the way."

Board members seemed to agree, and Commissioner K. Ray Bailey got a laugh from the audience when he exclaimed, "This sounds like something that ought to be the headline in tomorrow morning's paper."

Board Chair David Gantt : "We can't do business like we've done it in the past, just using fossil fuels. … I've been out there; it's an impressive facility. Those people who are getting electricity from Buncombe County trash are fortunate folks."

The long-term plan, noted Creighton, is to add another generator in six years, doubling both the amount of methane processed and the amount of electricity produced. The landfill is expected to remain in operation for another 20 years, he said.

Not everyone shared these officials' enthusiasm for the project, however.

During the public-comment period, Jupiter resident Don Yelton called for tighter oversight. "It's not profit: It's money from taxpayers,” he pointed out. “I think that's the problem. I know it may generate profit down the road, but I'd like to have a yearly update on the project   maintenance, what it costs, how it's broken down.”

Yelton went on to accuse board members of making politics a higher priority than their other responsibilities.

"How can I tell it's an election year? If you look at today's meeting agenda, there's nothing controversial in there. It's all backslapping: Everybody's happy, doing great things; it's wonderful," Yelton said mockingly. "I turn on the Buncombe County channel, and guess what I see? Our county commissioners somewhere out in the public talking about women's rights or something positive."

None of the commissioners responded to his critique. (Commissioner Holly Jones was absent, vacationing with her family). The county will hold an official ribbon cutting for the landfill project on April 27.

Other business

In other action, the commissioners:
•  Heard a report from Human Services staff on the "Safety for Children Under Six" program, set to launch this month. Kids in that age group are the most common victims of abuse, Angela Pittman explained, noting that last year, four Buncombe County children died as the result of abuse. Nationwide, about 5 million instances of child abuse and neglect are reported every year, said Pittman. In addition to an educational campaign, the program will place Services staffers in communities, beginning with the Pisgah View housing project.
• Unanimously approved a proclamation designating April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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