Situated on the Blue Ridge Mountains, the studio of glassblower John Geci is just part of a complex of craft workshops and greenhouses used for artistry, training, education and tourism. But what makes this mecca of craftsmanship and horticulture noteworthy is that it is located on and fueled by — a landfill.
When Mitchell county's and Yancey county's six-acre landfill closed in 1994, officials wanted to find a way to effectively control the landfill's methane gas. The solution came from an unexpected source. Returning from a trip to Florida, one Yancey county official brought back a newspaper clipping outlining a landfill methane project.
However, funding to develop a similar landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) project simply wasn't available. So county officials contacted the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), Jefferson, N.C., a nonprofit corporation serving seven counties in western North Carolina that helps people in the region care for and protect their natural resources through a public-private partnership program.
“It was a shame to see the gas being wasted and polluting the air, but the counties simply didn't have the resources,” says Stan Steury, executive director for the Blue Ridge RC&D. “We then conducted research and found there was an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program to help figure out the feasibility of implementing such a project.”
The EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), Washington, D.C., was established under the Clinton administration in Dec. 1994 to encourage businesses to use landfill gas (LFG) as an energy resource. The EPA assists utilities, municipal and private landfill owners and operators, tribes and state agencies in reducing methane emissions from landfills through profitable landfill energy recovery projects. Steury contacted Shelley Cohen, LMOP'S program manager, and a partnership was born.
LMOP proposed ways to use the LFG to an initial group of 20 county officials. And the counties developed the idea to use the gas to heat greenhouses that would become a training ground for high school students interested in horticulture.
Then, a group of more than 60 people from the bi-county area, including representatives from both communities and local schools, decided to form a nonprofit organization. Creating a non-profit organization made legal matters and handling money easier. The partners — Hand Made in America, Asheville, N.C., a local craft guild; Mayland Community College, Spruce Pine, N.C.; and RC&D — formed EnergyXchange.
EnergyXchange coined the greenhouse initiative Project Branch Out, a work-study program for three area high schools and two colleges. Project Branch Out also would include an aquaponics demonstration project, incubators for a greenhouse business and rare plant propagation. This would further plant growth in an area that already is known for its high concentration of azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, ginseng and bloodroot — popular decorative and medicinal plants. LMOP conducted a feasibility study and determined the project would use more than 7,500 tons of LFG.
“We also found out we had way too much gas just for greenhouses,” Steury says. “So we explored the idea of using the remaining gas to power craft studios for potters and glassblowers. It's extremely difficult for local artists to afford their own studios and galleries. We [now] provide fully equipped studios at a low cost.”
Geci, the first artist to arrive at the landfill, is one of several artists who benefit from the project. A glassblower for six years, Geci could not handle the financial burden of buying equipment and renting space for his own shop. But the LFGTE project provided all the equipment necessary — two furnaces for heating the glass and annealer ovens for cooling it — plus an affordable studio space. Artists currently pay EnergyXchange between $200 to $350 per month to use the studio and gallery, and they hold two-to-three-year residencies. There is no gas bill, which normally costs anywhere from $1,000 to $1,200 per month in a regular studio, Geci says.
“That's the wonderful thing about it,” Geci adds. “Ever since people have been blowing glass, they've been tearing down forests and using natural gas and coal to power their furnaces. But here, the gas is recycled, and you're actually helping the environment by practicing your craft. It's a wonderful studio space. I plan to stay until they kick me out.”
Although the LFG provides a steady stream of energy for the greenhouses, two 1,500 square-foot studios, a soon-to-be tourism center, and an art studio and boiler room, it does not cover the cost of building the facilities and maintaining them. To supplement the artists' monthly studio fees, Steury and his group have raised more than $1.3 million for both projects, through a combination of federal, state and private funding. Steury expects EnergyXchange to be self-supporting by 2004.
“EnergyXchange will use the sales of the plants from the greenhouses, the potters and glassblowers rental fees and gallery commissions to help maintain the operation,” Steury says. “Plus, we plan on exploring other opportunities such as inviting guest artists, charging a visitor's fee for tourists and extending our services as consultants to other landfill owners who want advice on how to proceed with their own landfill methane projects.”
There currently is enough gas in the landfill to power the greenhouses and studios for 15 years. And RC&D already is looking at alternative renewable energy sources, such as solar applications and wind power, to run the complexes once the methane is gone.
EnergyXchange wants to bring similar projects to other western North Carolina county landfills as well, Steury says. But greenhouses and craft studios are not the answer for everyone. For example, neighboring Wilkes and Alleghany counties are researching whether a landfill methane project could provide fuel for a regional fire-training center and to heat and cool county health departments.
“You have to look at the local economy and determine how the energy can best be used to serve those needs,” Steury says. “This is what worked for us. We've often laughed about … inviting tourists to a landfill. After all, it's not the first place someone would choose to come while they're on vacation, but it's happening.”