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Plan To Make Power From Trash Faces Skeptics

Tom McKittrick align=left

There's an ambitious plan to turn hundreds of acres on the western edge of Mecklenburg County into an eco-friendly park of offices, solar power and trails. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. There are plenty of skeptics - including some local environmentalists and members of the Charlotte City Council. Tom McKittrick wants your trash. Rotten food. Dirty diapers. Whatever you haul out to the curb is fuel for his big project called ReVenture. The whole thing will cost a billion dollars by some estimates, all built on a 600-acre stretch of mostly contaminated land along the Catawba River where a dye factory used to be. As McKittrick runs his hand over a poster-size map of the plan, one section draws his gaze. "The piece that is the most exciting - and yet the most controversial - is the waste to energy plant," says McKittrick. Controversial because some say "waste to energy" is just a nice way of saying another much dirtier word: incinerator. This is where your trash comes in. About 370,000 tons of household waste from Mecklenburg County was landfilled last year. McKittrick wants it to come to ReVenture instead. First, it would go to a building on Statesville Road near I-85 where ReVenture would sort out stuff that can be recycled and things like batteries and electronics. "The rest of that non-recyclable material would be shredded into basically confetti," says McKittrick. "That is the fuel that would be used to create electricity." The confetti would go to a new power plant near the Whitewater Center. ReVenture would sell that electricity - probably to Duke Energy - for a nifty profit. ReVenture convinced the General Assembly to pass a special law making its electricity generated from trash three-times as valuable as energy from other renewable sources. Without that, McKittrick says the project couldn't be profitable. And he says all this talk about incineration is just semantics. Nothing about the ReVenture plant is an incinerator according to the "classic definition which is burning raw garbage," says McKittrick. "That is clearly not what we're doing here." McKittrick says the ReVenture plant will use a process called gasification. The trash is heated until it separates into something like natural gas. It'll make enough to power about 30,000 homes. Whether it's technically an incinerator or not, ReVenture would be permitted like an incinerator. McKittrick has promised it will only be minor source of air pollution, but he has yet to settle on the type of gasification technology ReVenture would use. And that's part of the problem. "It's way too important to this community for someone to come and say to me 'Trust me, it's gonna be okay.' And that's sort of what I feel like they're doing," says Charlotte City Councilwoman Patsy Kinsey. When McKittrick first pitched ReVenture to the council about a year ago, the response was enthusiastic, but now Kinsey and several other council members have grown skittish. They want specific air pollution details, which ReVenture is scrambling to provide. The Charlotte City Council was originally supposed to vote on the proposal on November 8th, but that decision has been delayed indefinitely. Now the guy in charge of managing Mecklenburg County's waste is starting to sweat a bit. "I need places or methods to manage that waste beyond July 1, 2012," says Mecklenburg County solid waste director Bruce Gledhill. July 2012 is when the county's current landfill contract expires. Gledhill says we could sign another contract, but he's intrigued by the idea of putting the trash to good use, especially since ReVenture says it will charge the county about the same as the landfill does. Mecklenburg County's Solid Waste Commission has organized a citizens' advisory council to evaluate the ReVenture proposal. Air quality concerns have so far dominated the council's meetings - particularly for those on the council who live near the proposed power plant site, like Elaine Powell. "Here we are in the top ten of the worst ozone in the country and our river is in the top ten most endangered rivers in the country," says Powell. "I'm all for great technology but I don't know if we want to be the guinea pigs for this." Gasification technology is fairly common in Europe, but it's just emerging in the U.S. And that makes it tough for ReVenture's McKittrick to cite examples. But he insists the risks are minimal and better than the alternative. "Charlotte would be effectively electing to continue landfilling that material," says McKittrick. There is a third alternative: we could just make less trash. That's what environmental groups say we should be focused on. Other cities like San Francisco have done it by passing laws that require people to recycle and compost. But local officials say it'll take a long time to get there and we need somewhere to put our trash now. For that, they're giving ReVenture serious consideration.