Catawba County EcoComplex

I spent the day with Jeremy and Brian in Catawba County at their “EcoComplex,” and I have to say I am jealous and in awe of their project.

Their start point is a series of massive generators which are producing 3 megawatts of electricity from methane at the landfill. They take the waste heat off of the generators to power their 100K/year biodiesel facility.

The facility is gorgeous. It’s daylit, and new, with everything in a straight line. Simple. Elegant. Easy. We’ve done some work for them. We provided some tanks, and some designs, and some guidance. Some of our stuff has probably been helpful. And some of our work has been dead wrong.

I went up today to get the tour, and to do some consulting, and to do some back crawl on behalf of our design-build group.

What I found there was remarkable. Apart from their co-generation plant they have hundreds of acres in canola in the ground, along with a complete oilseed cleaning, drying, and crushing facility.

In many ways they are living the dream. Yet at the same time, their facilities are not yet spinning like tops. The money has been spent, the equipment is in place, and now the pressure is on to deliver economic performance. I was blown away by their project.

At lunch Jeremy recoiled at my use of the term “anomaly.” I feel like successful biodiesel projects require feedstock anomalies, and I feel like they have one under development.

For me “anomaly” is not a pejorative term. Perhaps a better word would be “niche.”
But I do think that for biodiesel to succeed it needs to find its own ecological niche where it can survive despite the vagaries of global commodity markets.

I believe that in Industrial Evolution I likened our project to a mussel. Something that clings to a rock for survival—part of its life spent trying not to be bashed into oblivion by high powered waves, and part of its life in serenity, trying not to be eaten by a sea bird.

Jeremy’s preference is for “replicatability.” And I can see that. That’s something that foundations want. Maybe Colleges desire as well. But I’m not sure it is something that is destined for the biodiesel landscape.

The best example of perfect replication might be the McDonald’s French fry. It is basically horrible the world over. But it is the same. It is successfully replicated.

I’m not sure things replicate in nature. I think that each project is different, and each is flavored by varying influences. Which means a biofuels program at Central Carolina Community College will be different from a biofuels program elsewhere. And a community scale biodiesel project in Louisville will be different from one in Pittsboro.

And I suppose that is because there are humans involved.

If this were simply renewable BTUs, it would be drop dead simple.

I came home from Catawba County jazzed by possibilities, impressed by the resources they had deployed, and delighted by the fact that they are bringing to fruition so many ideas that have been merely talked about in the biofuels community for lo these many years.

My trip to the Catawba EcoComplex inspired me. And it steeled my resolve toward improving the ecological performance of our own project…

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