In the past, landfills were abundant in North Carolina. At one point, more than 90 large-scale dumping sites were scattered throughout the state, and nearly every county had its own site. Over time, landfills do just that – fill up – and requirements make it hard for some to continue.
Catawba County still has one of 41 landfills left in the state, but as the name suggests, the county’s EcoComplex does a lot more than collect waste. Between the cracks and behind the scenes, it does a lot for the average citizen than it appears on the surface.
The Catawba County EcoComplex is an 800-acre facility that is growing, and there are many different components that continue to develop. The complex still features scrap tire yards and mulch grinding areas stereotypical of a county landfill, but EcoComplex officials have enacted numerous strategies to get as much available energy out of the waste as they can. Those strategies – over time – will directly impact citizens in their environment and their wallet.
The EcoComplex is unique in that it has – or is planning to have – several facilities on-site that turn landfill products into real energy. That excess energy has brought additional revenue to the county’s waste fund, which creates service benefits for county citizens, including low and stable tipping fees, said Jack Chandler, assistant director of the EcoComplex. “Any time we can do something to bring more revenue into the waste fund, that directly benefits keeping a low, stable tipping fee, which directly impacts the citizens,” Chandler said.
The additional revenue is mostly driven by EcoComplex’s Landfill Gas-to-Energy project. Using three engine generators, the complex burns methane gas that is produced naturally at the landfill. That burned gas generates about 3 megawatts of renewable electricity per hour – enough electricity to power about 1,400 average sized homes, according to an EcoComplex document. Chandler said “uptime” has increased for the engine generators due to an increase in natural gas, which has provided the complex with an additional revenue stream.
The Gas-to-Energy facility is only one of the EcoComplex’s cutting-edge programs. Other facilities like a Biodiesel Research and Production site as well as a planned Wood Gasification Energy facility will increase the complex’s emphasis on renewable energy – something Chandler said may attract potential private partners to the area.
“Any time we can bring a private or public partner that can enhance the way things are better used, it will benefit the area,” Chandler said. “By bringing in those companies that can use those beneficial byproducts, we are not only being more energy-efficient, but helping business as well.” Additional revenue also means more services for residents. Unlike previous years, the county will offer four special collection events throughout the year. The collection events will be spread throughout the year and will collect household hazardous waste, paint, and electronics, which were recently banned from landfills through legislation passed this year. An Electronics Collection day is set for Saturday at the landfill from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
While the hazardous materials will be recycled, burned or sent to special hazardous waste landfills, the electronics will be collected and recycled.
Coming down the mountain
The EcoComplex’s cutting edge research is also improving the county’s relationship with universities in the area as well as a younger population. Catawba County has partnered with Appalachian State University to create a center for biodiesel research and production. Jeremy Ferrell and Brian Whitmer, both ASU grads, work in the biodiesel facility with interns and students from colleges throughout the state. They test biodiesel fuel produced by several companies in the region and grow crops around the landfill to test which ones survive best in the climate while producing the best oils for biodiesel.
“This will attract students from all universities in the state,” Ferrell said.
“This is ground-breaking work in this field, and this would be one of the premiere places to work for someone coming out of school.”
“By bringing the research opportunities to Catawba County and increasing that presence, then we are exposing a lot of people to the county,” Chandler said, “and we are showing what Catawba County has to offer so that hopefully, they may decide to relocate here when they finish their education.”