Energy to Art in the Unlikeliest of Places

Author: Mary Alice Blackstock

The term “energy” is normally associated with big power plants and turbines pumping electricity to our homes. But that’s not the case everywhere. At the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, North Carolina, energy is turned into art.

Jackson County Green Energy Park is unique because it gets its energy from an unlikely source: landfill gas, which is given off when organic materials decompose in landfills. The gas is a natural byproduct of decomposition, and it is approximately 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide, with a small percentage of other gases.

Built on the old Dillsboro landfill, the park captures the methane gas and uses it to heat a variety of art studios, including blacksmith forges, the metal foundry, glassblowing studios and the wood-fired pottery kiln.  With the only blacksmith forges and foundry in the world fired using landfill gas, the Jackson County Green Energy Park has made a name for itself in the clean energy arts community.

“One unanticipated benefit that our resident blacksmith has seen from landfill gas use is that it gives him a real marketing advantage,” said Timm Muth, director of Jackson County Green Energy Park. “He can make the honest claim that he has some of the only steel pieces made using a truly renewable energy resource.”

As of 2016, municipal solid waste landfills were the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. Methods of landfill gas capture prevent that methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, from escaping into the atmosphere.

Since its inception in 2005, the Jackson County Green Energy Park has prevented 281 tons of methane from entering the atmosphere annually, which is the equivalent of taking 916 vehicles off the road or planting 1,305 acres of forest.

“Landfills emit a huge amount of methane, a well-known greenhouse gas,” said Sherri Stanley, Solid Waste Section Permitting Branch supervisor in the Division of Waste Management. “If this gas was just released, it’d not only be a waste of a relatively clean energy source but would also contribute to the presence of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.”

While the use of captured methane offers undeniable benefits to the surrounding air quality, the Jackson County Green Energy Park has seen a noticeable positive impact on the water quality of nearby rivers.

“The Tuckasegee River, which is a huge economic driver for the county in terms of fishing and recreational boating, lies basically at the foot of the landfill.” said Muth. “When we began this project, the water contaminant levels were all way over the water quality limits, but now those levels are well under the limit, and in many probes, they’re undetectable.”

While the Jackson County Green Energy Park uses landfill gas for the more creative side of things, landfill gas can be captured for use in a variety of projects. The most common use of landfill gas is generating electricity to be sold to local power companies, but other uses include thermal projects, vehicle fuel and boilers for manufacturing.

South Wake Landfill uses landfill gas solely for electricity, and it produces about 6 Megawatts of continuous power, which is enough to power a minimum of 6,000 homes during peak demand and about 12,000 homes off peak demand.

Not only is South Wake Landfill providing a local, renewable fuel source to generate power, but it’s also generating revenue for the county through electricity sales, which creates jobs and encourages economic development. 

“Known as homes for trash, landfills are the unlikeliest of places to find sources of renewable energy, concluded Stanley. “What Jackson and Wake counties are doing is so remarkable and relevant to improving the environmental footprint for their counties.”

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