The developer whose plan to turn Charlotte trash into electricity was squashed by public opposition last year, has now received a permit for a much smaller power plant that will run on sawdust.
Tom McKittrick's original vision at a contaminated industrial site on the Catawba River was an 80 megawatt plant powered by household garbage.
People protested and McKittrick couldn't find a buyer for all that electricity, so he scaled back to 45 megawatts, then 20 megawatts and then dropped it completely. Now he's received a Mecklenburg County Air Quality permit to generate just one-and-a-half megawatts of electricity burning sawdust at what he calls ReVenture Park.
"The idea with the project from Day 1 was to create a platform for attracting energy alternative fuel, recycling-type projects," says McKittrick. "So this small power plant plays directly in with the initial plan. It's just a smaller project than what we set out, originally, to do."
It's a showcase, more than anything and has been classified among Mecklenburg County's smallest sources of air pollution.
McKittrick plans to buy sawdust from a North Carolina lumber mill and turn it into synthetic gas through a high-heat process called "gasification." The gas is then burned for electricity.
The process is considered "renewable energy" under state law and Sustain Charlotte executive director Shannon Binns thinks it’s a good idea, so long as McKittrick sticks to burning sawdust.
"If it were to be whole trees that were logged specifically to turn into energy, we wouldn't support that," says Binns. "But in this case, it's a byproduct of a manufacturing process and more-or-less a waste product so we think this is a good use for that material."
Less pleased with the plan is Bill Gupton, chair of the Central Piedmont Sierra Club which opposes all forms of incineration – no matter the size of the project. Furthermore, Gupton is leery of McKittrick's long-term motives.
"When I hear that it's going to be a very small unit, it makes me concerned that what we may see down the road is a much bigger enterprise," says Gupton.
If the 1.5 megawatt plant proves successful, McKittrick says he would like to expand it, but notes that would require further approval from county regulators and may justify public hearings.
Mecklenburg County Air Quality officials did not deem the initial permit large enough to notify the community. It was issued over the summer. The plant is expected to be complete in early 2013.