ReVenture will no longer burn county trash. Opinions differ on whether that’s a good thing

By: Scott Baughman//June 14, 2011//

ReVenture will no longer burn county trash. Opinions differ on whether that’s a good thing

By: Scott Baughman//June 14, 2011//

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ReVenture Park’s plan to burn Mecklenburg County’s trash to produce electricity has gone up in flames.

In a city that’s trying to diversify its economy from one focused mostly on banking, the loss of a project that would have generated energy in a new way could be seen as setback.

To some, it is. To others, it isn’t.

After months of public meetings over the possibility of the waste-to-energy incinerator burning municipal garbage, Forsite Development announced last month it was scaling back its production from a 20-megawatt facility to a 10-megawatt one. The reduction means the company will not try to get a contract to use a process called gasification to turn the county’s waste into energy.

Some green gurus say that aspect of ReVenture Park was the work of eco-posers all along.

“With ReVenture, that particular component was not green,” said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, an environmental nonprofit. “It is what we call ‘green-washing,’ where it is sold and marketed as green, but it isn’t.”

Binns said there were a lot of environmental risks associated with burning municipal waste. He called the idea the worst possible use of garbage.

“If we moved forward with that project, people who know the difference between green and green-washing would actually see us in a lot more negative light,” he said.

He wasn’t alone in his disdain for the project among ecological circles.

“Green, clean and renewable energy does not come out of a smokestack,” said Bill Gupton, chairman of the Central Piedmont chapter of the North Carolina Sierra Club. “Ending this plan to burn our garbage … puts us back on track to supporting solar and offshore wind-related businesses here in Mecklenburg County.”

Ivan Urlaub, executive director of Raleigh-based North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, sees things differently. His organization wrote a letter of support for the original Reventure design and awarded the project a Business Innovation Award last year.

Gasification, Urlaub said, is better for the environment than using traditional boiler technology to destroy municipal waste.

“There’s different ways to … make energy,” he said, “and gasification is a cleaner way to do it than the traditional way of doing it. It can have a more complete and cleaner combustion than traditional combustion technologies.”

One of the best ways to keep costs down for a society is to reuse, he said, adding that one of the least cost-effective things to do is chuck things into a landfill.

“So, certainly, they were on a path to sustainability with this project,” he said.

To Binns and Gupton, though, for Charlotte to continue to be seen as a green city more emphasis should be placed on energy efficiencies, solar and wind technologies and a newer topic in the world of waste management: the zero-waste philosophy.

“We’ve begun advocating for taking a hard look at our total waste stream: commercial, construction, residential and organics,” Gupton said.

Last month, the Central Piedmont Sierra Club co-sponsored the documentary “Trashed,” a film highlighting one of the fastest-growing American industries: waste disposal. Gupton said the group plans to work with elected officials and other organizations to adopt practices that preserve natural resources and divert as much material as possible from landfills.

Binns and his group also support the idea of a zero-waste solution and say Charlotte can continue to demonstrate leadership in green initiatives by adopting that philosophy wholeheartedly.

“I think we need to reduce our waste, rather than investing in expensive and risky disposal options, be it incinerator or landfill expansions,” Binns said.

He said the city has seen real advancements, particularly in solar energy production and the quest for more efficiencies in uptown buildings.

“Ever since the (state) renewable-energies requirement law was passed (in 2007), Charlotte has been advancing,” he said. “In April, I was happy to see Mecklenburg County put large solar arrays on the county jail and other buildings.”

The county’s Real Estate Services Department contracted out the job to Southern Energy Management, a Moorisville, N.C.-based sustainable-energy company, and put 64 panels on Mecklenburg County Jail North, 32 at Metro School, 21 at the medical examiner’s office, 16 at Central Piedmont Community College’s culinary arts building and eight at the Wallace Kuralt Centre, home to the county’s social services offices on Billingsley Road.

A $649,500 federal stimulus grant funded the project and county officials say it will pay for itself in less than 12 years as the solar energy is used to heat water for the facilities instead of traditional water heaters.

Charlotte Center City Partners and Duke Energy Corp. have also gotten involved in making the Queen City greener with the Envision: Charlotte program announced in September. The project will look at energy uses in major buildings in uptown and try to find ways to cut waste. Coupled with the solar panel expansion, the initiative is part of a larger move by local companies and officials to decentralize the city’s power grid.

Some other companies are also trying to get in on the green rush. Binns singled out Charlotte-based solar energy firm Argand Energy Solutions as one company that is doing the green industry model right.

“I certainly think Charlotte still has a reputation as a place where green energy is a big player,” said Chatham Olive, vice president of business development and community relations for Argand. “But if you ask me, Charlotte needs to green up and do it to the max.”

Olive praised the city’s recycling program as one of the best in the country. He said Charlotte’s Lynx light-rail train system is one of the best green initiatives in the region. But he pointed to cities like Portland, Ore., and Denver as cities to try and imitate.

“For the longest time, we didn’t have anyone from the city working on green projects,” he said. “But thankfully we’ve now got Rob Phocas, energy and sustainability manager for the city. Consider, though, he’s one man and Portland has 50 people working in their sustainability office.”

In Denver, there is also a higher requirement for utilities to use renewable-energy generation as part of their overall power production plan. North Carolina law requires public utilities, like Duke Energy, to produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources, like wind or solar generators. For Colorado utilities, the requirement is 30 percent. Olive said the requirement needs to increase if the county and the state want to draw in new, modern businesses.

“NASCAR is great and all. It is a lot of fun,” he said. “But here’s the deal: If you want new jobs, you need to embrace green.

“Pretty soon, solar will be as cheap a way to produce electricity as burning coal. The cost of solar is going down, while the cost of coal is going up. Where those two lines intersect, we call that parity and it is coming within two to three years.”

Although Binns and Gupton are happy that the gasification component of ReVenture has evaporated, Urlaub called it “possibly a missed opportunity to learn how to be more sustainable in our energy use and generation.”

“It’s a learning opportunity,” he said, adding that there needs to be an alternative to putting trash in landfills.

“The concept is we’re all learning together how to be cleaner, how to achieve cleaner and more sustainable energy,” he said.

“ReVenture represents an opportunity to learn together how to make progress toward more clean and sustainable use and generation of energy.”

Scott Baughman can be reached at [email protected].

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