One day after a proposed renewable energy plant received overwhelming opposition at a City Council public hearing, county officials spoke highly of the plant, the benefits it could bring to Clinton and Sampson County and voted to work with the company on an incentives agreement during a separate public hearing Wednesday night.
Contrary to Tuesday’s packed City Hall Auditorium on NOVI Carolina Digester I LLC’s proposal to locate a 41-acre tract of land off Industrial Drive, Clinton, within the Sampson Southeast Business Center, no one was in attendance at Wednesday’s advertised hearing in the County Auditorium aside from the Sampson Board of Commissioners, county managerial staff and economic developer John Swope.
Swope made a presentation about the NOVI plant in Fremont, Mich., which he, county manger Ed Causey, Commissioner Albert Kirby and Sherri Smith visited last month. Causey and Kirby spoke glowingly of the appearance of the plant, its “unobtrusive” and clean nature amid a residential area and the technology and tax base it could bring locally.
As part of the hearing, Swope also floated an incentives agreement that would extend grantbacks in return for NOVI’s $22 million taxable investment. A closed session followed to further those possible incentives, after which the board unanimously approved continuing negotiations with NOVI.
“Having heard and reviewed the information presented this evening, the Board of Commissioners is convinced that the NOVI project is an economically viable and attractive project for our community,” the statement, approved in open session, read. “Therefore we have directed the county attorney and the economic developer to continue negotiations on the level of incentives conducive to the location of the industry in Sampson County.”
A conditional use request by NOVI for the plant proposed for Industrial Drive was tabled by the City Council Tuesday, to be considered in February. However, the Board of Commissioners seemed more receptive to the prospect of the industry locating in Sampson.
NOVI proposes to develop and construct a 4.3 megawatt electric power generation plant that digests organic waste (a variety of agriculture and food waste would be used as feedstock) into bio-methane, which fuels engine-generators to generate the renewable energy. That electricity would be sold as part of a long-term power purchase agreement with Duke Energy.
“That is a major step that has been accomplished by this company,” said Swope, noting the 20-year length of the power contract. “This is the type of project that is long term. This is not something that is here and gone. This is something that would be longstanding in the Sampson County and Clinton area.”
The Michigan-based company would bring 13 jobs — possibly more — with an average salary of just over $40,000. If locating to Sampson, the company would pay property taxes totaling about $1.42 million in its first 10 years. Initial incentive grantback agreements would see the company paying about 64.5 percent of that amount, or just over $900,000, but that remains to be ironed out.
‘An aggressive plan’
In his presentation to the board Wednesday, Swope noted that NOVI was seeking to develop plants at several different locations. NOVI Carolina Digester II is proposed for Duplin and NOVI Carolina Digester III could be located in southern Sampson or northern Bladen County. A second public hearing for Wednesday, on Digester III, was continued until January.
“It’s an aggressive plan,” Swope said. “They see this area as a vital area and they see hog waste as an important part of their feedstock.”
NOVI’s own fleet of trucks will pick up from customers and transport feedstock from throughout the region, doing it via signed feedstock supply contracts with major regional food processors — the company already boasts baby food company Gerber among them — and agricultural businesses. That feedstock is delivered to pre-storage tanks and then mixed into the digesters.
On Tuesday, representative of big-name local industries, like DuBose and Schindler, came out in opposition to the facility, as did many residents in the surrounding community. Noise, traffic and odor coming from transporting and dropping off organic waste were among their chief concerns, noting that property values could decrease and future industrial prospects would be scared off.
Many said they did not have a problem with the technology or the facility itself, but questioned the chosen location for those reasons. In response to those concerns at Tuesday’s meeting, NOVI Energy President Anand Gangadharan detailed the completely enclosed transportation and delivery process, and the many steps taken to keep vehicles, the facility and the community free of any leaked waste.
Gangadharan said he felt the proposed Clinton plant would be a model facility, a good corporate citizen and a source of pride in the community.
“Given some time, we will prove ourselves,” he said Tuesday
Swope and other county officials expounded on NOVI’s benefits Wednesday. He showed slides from last month’s visit to NOVI’s Fremont Community Digester in Fremont, Mich., a 100,000-ton per year complete mix anaerobic digester and the first commercial-scale anaerobic digester in the United States. The plant is very similar to what is proposed here.
Kirby said he went on the trip with the same concerns of odor and poor aesthetic value, but was impressed by what he saw.
“The thing I was concerned about was the odor. I wanted to see if it would be anything offensive,” said Kirby. “I did not detect any strong odor whatsoever. And aesthetically, I was quite impressed with it.”
‘Would fit in
Pictures showed one of the plant’s digesters peeking just over homes a few hundred yards away, and some homes were even closer than that. There was also a lake very close by. The nearest homes for the proposed Clinton plant would be about 1,450 feet away with a more substantial buffer than in Fremont, company officials said.
“They were pretty expensive homes and the portion (of the plant) next to the homes was quite close,” said Kirby of the Michigan plant. “They’re living in harmony.”
“It’s blends into a residential neighborhood,” Causey added. “The (Fremont) Industrial Park is just unobtrusive. I would just as soon have the NOVI plant across from me.”
Kirby said he was also concerned about the manner in which transports were made, but saw equipment that kept all waste unexposed to the environment. He said there could be a environmentally-friendly solution for farmers.
“They have these huge trucks that are vacuum-sealed; it’s air-pressured,” he said. “When (the trucks) get to the plant, they hook them into the tanks. Fecal matter never sees the air. The overall operation looked very efficient and it looked to be something that would fit in our community.”
Causey said the Michigan plant was “non-distinctive,” a compliment in terms of its low impact on its surroundings.
“You will not be able to distinguish it from any other facility out there,” said Causey. “If you did not know what you were looking for, you would not be able to distinguish it from Schindler or any other industry.”
Causey, who also praised NOVI during Tuesday’s Council hearing, said the company is getting a great deal of positive feedback from other communities. Causey specifically mentioned Gerber, a prominent company that cannot afford to be affiliated with a company that is not highly efficient and effective, he noted.
Kirby said he was not sold on the plant before seeing it, but was a believer now.
“Anything that is harmful to the environment or is just sitting around as waste he would use it to produce energy,” said Kirby. “Maybe that is something that can help us and our county.”
Causey echoed that sentiment, and said he has not seen anything to make him believe otherwise.
“I appreciate the sensitivity of everyone in Sampson County, environmentally speaking. I hope they will step back and see (that this could be a positive). And if the opportunity to go to Michigan arises, I hope good community leaders will go,” the county manager said. “This may be something that everyone will be willing to embrace and bring to Sampson County.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.