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$30 million renewable energy plant proposed for Clarendon area farm

Revised on: 06.18.2018 at 12:09 p.m.

Posted on: 06.12.2018 at 03:00 p.m.

By Allen Turner

A $30 million plant to convert hog wastes into gas that can be converted to electricity could be coming to the Clarendon community, Columbus County commissioners learned last week.

Shaun Lee, director of field operations for GESS International (Green Energy Sustainable Solutions), a global company, told commissioners that his company is hoping to install a plant on about 10 acres of the 450-acre Double B Farms at 6022 Old Stake Road that will convert hog wastes, as well as silage from county farm row crops, into natural gas that would be sold to Duke Energy and possibly other power companies.

In addition to the plant occupying  10 acres of farmland, another five acres would be utilized for storage of bio-mass materials.

The Clarendon facility would be the first of its kind in North Carolina, although other plants are also in the planning stages in Union, Nash and Wilson counties.

The Clarendon plant would utilize wastes from the 18,000 hogs at Double B Farms, as well as potentially from other hog farms in the county, and it would purchase row crops such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw from other farms in the county for use in its green energy process. It might also purchase chicken manure from poultry farmers.

While the company has 160 plants worldwide and already operates a different sort of bio-gas plant in North Carolina, the facility in Columbus County would be the first of its kind in the state and Lee did not rule out the possible establishment of other such plants in Columbus County in the future.

Lee said that when the plant is operational, it will employ four to six full-time employees with wages ranging from $15 to $25 an hour and that an additional 15-20 trucking jobs will be created by truck contractors serving the plant. “The jobs will be permanent jobs,” he said. “The people working will be long term, 20-year or longer, employees.”

The $30 million plant, when operational, will have an annual revenue stream of $14-15 million, he said.

“The benefit is not only that we’ll be providing clean energy in the form of bio-gas to the power company, but also that we will be working with row crop farmers to buy their products, such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw,” Lee said.

The same day that Lee made his presentation to commissioners, his company received approval from Duke Energy to connect into a 30-inch gas line on Highway 211 in another county, which will give GESS confirmation that they will be able to tie into the energy system. By law, Duke Energy will be required to buy bio-gas from GESS.

Commissioner Buddy Byrd commented on the potential benefits to farmers countywide. “The company can contract with area farmers to buy corn as it is harvested in July, and then the farmer can contract with them to plant sorghum as a second crop to harvest in October or November, and then put it back in wheat, and the farmer will get to keep the wheat seed,” Byrd said. Lee replied, “That’s right. We just want the straw from the wheat.”

Lee said that the plant would use about 6,000 acres of row crops from local farmers annually, including 3,500-4,000 acres of corn. The crops would be purchased at premium prices under contracts of up to 20 years in length.

He continued, “The farmers will be maximizing their agricultural land, not only for one crop, but for three crops that put nutrients back into the land. We’re working with N.C. State University to make sure we’re producing the proper nutrients from the plant, and then those nutrients will be put back into the soil at the proper levels.”

A feasibility study currently is underway to determine whether there is enough raw material in the county or whether materials will have to be trucked in. “Double B Farms has enough hog manure to sustain the size of plant we’re looking at,” he said, “but if we brought in more manure from outside, it would be in sealed containers.”

He mentioned possibly trucking in chicken wastes, prompting Commissioner Charles McDowell to voice concerns about possible odors, not only from the plant itself but also from trucks transporting chicken manure. “The digesters and the concrete tanks are sealed. The trucks that would bring it in are sealed, too, so you won’t get any smells,” Lee said. “Any chicken manure would be capped in and sealed with minimal ventilation and any materials would be covered. The farm would meet all air and water quality standards.”

A huge benefit is that the plant will take hog manure out of lagoons and process it for fertilizer and process the resulting methane gas into clean gas to be purchased by energy companies. The gas will be deposited into a gas pipeline to produce clean electricity. “By reducing the waste in hog lagoons, it will almost dry up the lagoons except for rainwater,” Lee said. “It will reduce smell and odor and stop any harmful materials from getting into the water table.”

There’s no firm timetable for when the plant will be in production. Duke Energy will be required by law to start buying gas produced by the plant no later than 2021. In the meantime, the company will work with county planners and state air and water quality personnel to make sure all zoning, land use and environmental regulations are satisfied.

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