EcoComplex tour highlights benefits of applied industrial ecology

By Staff | September 11, 2014

Nestled in the sparsely populated mountains of Western North Carolina is a cutting-edge research facility practicing applied industrial ecology. The Catawba County EcoComplex, co-located with the 800-acre Blackburn Landfill, underscores the importance of co-location and resource utilization to produce renewable energy with minimal carbon intensity. A tour spot for the 2014 Collective Biodiesel Conference co-hosted by Piedmont Biofuels and Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, N.C., the Catawba County EcoComplex, two-and-a-half hours west of the conference location, features 3 megawatts of electricity production from landfill gas, oilseed growth on 150 acres of buffer land, a 4-ton-per-day mechanical crush plant and a 130,000-gallon-per-year biodiesel production center, both of which are fed electricity and process heat and steam from the landfill. The EcoComplex also has a dynamometer to measure biodiesel emissions, taking the energy cycle full circle.

Jeremy Ferrell, an associate professor at Appalachian State University, is operations manager at the Catawba County EcoComplex and is one of the brains behind its development. Leading the tour of the facility, Ferrell said the Blackburn Landfill was Jenbacher’s first test site for landfill gas to energy in 1999. The site, tied to the power grid, pulls in $300,000 to $400,000 a year in electricity sales. Ferrell said the project was born from waste reduction laws passed by the state legislature. Today, the landfill has 2.7 million tons in place and has a useful life of 70 years. Catawba County built the EcoComplex without tax dollars. Instead, the county borrowed money from the landfill’s post-closure fund accumulated from a small fraction of the tipping fees.

The Blackburn Landfill uses 1,500 to 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel a week in its operations, and the biodiesel produced on-site is blended at 20 percent to fuel the landfill and county government vehicles.

Ferrell said the triple helix model, where government, universities and private businesses coalesce to share costs and resources, is an optimal framework within which to develop projects such as the EcoComplex. The site is adjacent to two private firms, a pallet company and a lumber mill, to facilitate future growth in partnership with Appalachian State University and Catawba County. Gasification and multifeed anaerobic digester projects at the EcoComplex are in the planning phases, and wood waste from the adjacent businesses is poised to provide feedstock for the future projects.

When industrial ecology practices are applied to methyl ester production, soy biodiesel can have a lower carbon intensity than that produced from waste vegetable oil in a traditional manner, Ferrell said.
Despite the environmental benefits realized from the EcoComplex, Ferrell said the small scale of the crush and biodiesel operations makes profitability a challenge. “The economics were marginal when the RIN was high and the dollar [tax credit] was in,” he said during the tour. “Now we’re losing money to crush seed.” He added that at this scale, the EcoComplex would need $1.20 per gallon in subsidies just to break even.

The financial challenges of small-scale biodiesel economics, along with the social and environmental benefits of community-scale production, were just a few of the many topics discussed at this year’s Collective Biodiesel Conference held Aug. 14-17. The tour of the Catawba County EcoComplex preceded two days of dialogue, presentations and activities.

Biodiesel-powered transportation from Pittsboro to the Catawba County EcoComplex and back was provided by Durham-based Greenway Transit.

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