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Local News: County Stages Presentations on Green and Positive Energy

Kicking off the green agenda was an update on the county’s Sustainability Plan. County Planner Cynthia Barcklow explained the last plan was designed for only five years, and it will soon expire. In updating the plan, the usual management du-jour was followed. When all was said and done, the major adjustment to be made to the county’s green trajectory was that each objective would be assigned only a single strategy and a single indicator. The last plan had included over 400 indicators, and metrics for each datum were either nonexistent or ebbing and flowing to the beat of their own drummers.

Commissioner Joe Belcher asked that the plan be sensitive to changes in the housing market, and Chair Brownie Newman replied the plan was big, but could not be all things to all people. Barcklow did, however, say the plan was not just for government, but reached into the health of citizens, the environment, and the economy. By another vote, the commissioners appointed Jeremiah LeRoy to head the newly-created Sustainability Office.

Long-Awaited Bioreactor Update

Next was a report on the 1.4-megawatt generator that combusts methane, a natural byproduct of decomposing garbage that Bioreactor Manager Kristy Smith described as “twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide.” In the last three years, the bioreactor has generated sufficient electricity to offset 11,067 metric tons of coal-burning by Duke Power, or enough to take the pollution of 2,338 vehicles out of the atmosphere for a year.

Commissioner Mike Fryar pointed out the presentations were typical for government. The board was not being given comprehensive projections of estimated costs and full accountings of expenditures to date with any meaningful level of detail. Instead, they were only hearing a cherry-picked smattering of numbers defending the positions the commissioners were supposed to take on any votes. He, like most conservatives, wanted to hear about that magic function called subtraction that makes reports look less rosy but supplies a firmer foundation for moving in rosier directions.

Fryar said the generator was a $6 million item, but County Manager Jon Creighton offered the cost had been reduced an unspecified amount through a grant. Creighton also said the county made money off the generator but offered no net sums. Fryar said the machine had to undergo maintenance scheduled for every thirty hours; one time it was down for 1.5 months. The 2016 year-over-year drop in metric tonnage of offsets from 4,126 to 3,334 had been attributed to downtime. Fryar added, “It’s a smart machine. It tells ’em when it breaks. It’ll send ’em an email.”

Energy Audit Update

Next, General Services Manager Clint Shepherd spoke of results attained following an energy audit performed by Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure, Inc. in 2014. The consultants conducted a detailed assessment of ten buildings according to standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. As a result, twenty-six strategies, with an implementation cost of $2.9 million and annual savings of $250,000 per year, were identified. From that list, the county selected nine measures to, at a cost of $250,000, annually reduce carbon emissions 2 percent and utility bills $100,000.

Strategies included reducing lighting in areas that were deemed unnecessarily bright, adding and refining the programming of thermostats, opening windows for winter cooling, programming computers and vending machines to go dormant when not in use, installing energy-efficient washing machines at the detention center, and making fine adjustments to the solar heating system at the new Health and Human Services Building. As a result of the investment, within two years, coal burning was reduced from 65,660 to 59,480 BTU per square foot, and combined electricity, water, and natural gas costs per square foot were decreased from $1.21 to $1.10.

Other strategies included replacing over 30,000 square feet of black roofing with more reflective materials, which Shepherd said can reduce electricity usage 10-15 percent. Another was the county’s ongoing program to replace 90-watt light bulbs at the Judicial Center with 30-watt bulbs to realize annual savings of 15,000 kilowatt-hours and $1,200, over the three-year life of the bulbs.

LED’s Are Education

By way of a separate agenda item, the commissioners approved the spending of $700,000 of North Carolina Education Lottery funds on lighting upfits for Buncombe County Schools. The project involved the replacement of 47,000 lights in thirty-eight buildings over a period of two years. The fixtures would cost $5,545,057; and labor, $114,500. Offsetting the total would be an estimated $2,345,992 in Duke Energy Progress rebates, $855,500 in annual utility savings, and $55,500 in reduced maintenance costs, even after two fulltime employees would be hired just to change the bulbs.

Buncombe County Schools Energy Manager Alesha Reardon noted 20 percent of the school systems’ electrical work orders are for changing fluorescent bulbs and ballasts. Reardon added fluorescent bulbs contained mercury; radiated ultraviolet wavelengths; and had a dated and less sleek appearance worsened by a mish-mash of soft pinks, greens, and oranges. Compared to fluorescent lights, LED’s provide the same lumens per square foot using 25 percent fewer kilowatt-hours, and they last 150,000 hours instead of only 24,000.

During public comment, Lisa Baldwin asked for some accountability before the commissioners renewed even more investment in green retrofits. She had numbers on expenditures. For example, $330,000 was spent by area schools on high-bay, linear fluorescent lighting for their gymnasiums. The investment was supposed to save the schools $815,000 annually on their combined utility bills, but Baldwin had no data on how much was actually saved or if the lights were performing adequately. Baldwin wanted to know outcomes for replacing T12 classroom lights with T8’s. Then, there was the $750,000 contract for stadium and field lights. Baldwin maintains her position that the greenest thing the schools might be able to do is redraw school districts to optimize facility utilization. A study, however, would be needed.

Jerry Rice said he “absolutely detested” using Education Lottery funds on maintenance projects. “You wanna talk about buildings? That’s not education. That’s buildings,” said he.

Belcher asked Buncombe County Schools’ Director of Facilities Tim Fierle to spotlight some of the green features incorporated into the newly-built Enka Intermediate School. Fierle said the school system has through the years compared electricity usage among its buildings to identify and replicate more effective strategies. Enka Intermediate employed a lot of low-tech solutions, including designing windows to take advantage of natural daylight, controlling lights with multi-level switching, and installing large solar tubes. Polished concrete floors were going to drastically reduce the building’s triple bottom line; saving materials and labor for installation and ongoing maintenance.

Solar Farm

In a final matter, Newman requested $26,000 for the filing of an interconnection application with Duke Energy. In his private life, he works for the solar industry, and so he had been trying to find ways to use his expertise to help the county meet its green targets. He then had the idea of building a solar farm on the retired county landfill in Woodfin. Newman stressed this was just an idea, which needed to pass a feasibility study. To abstain from any appearance of evil, the companies with which he has recently been affiliated would not be allowed to participate in this project.

Newman said he liked the site because it is difficult to find sufficient flat acreage in the mountains. As a rule of thumb, solar farms must cover at least ten acres. If they are smaller than that, the cost per watt becomes prohibitive. Other advantages are the county owns the land, so no acquisition costs would be involved. A 3-phase powerline is on premises, and a substation is only 1.15 miles away.

What’s more, a solar company or an investor could lease the 25-acre parcel from the county at $30,000 a year and pay $20,000 in property taxes, which would be split between the county and the Town of Woodfin. Furthermore, it would be possible to negotiate a contract wherein the developer pays a fee to cover the county’s investment in the project, and the county would save around $10,000 to $12,000 a year by not having to mow the land all spring, summer, and fall.

If, after a six- to eight-month process, Duke approves the preliminary plans submitted with the interconnection application, due diligence would be performed, including a geotechnical survey, environmental impact studies, and analyses of the proposed system itself. This would cost the county another $15,000 it would hope to recoup in development fees. Most of the funds the county would invest are usually refundable in the event the feasibility study fails.

To choose a developer, the county would issue a request for proposals, and the company selected to build and operate the facility would enter into a contract with Duke for the sale of power. Newman did not anticipate problems locating a buyer, as a lot of alternative-energy companies in the state are looking for sites to own and operate.

Green benefits of the system include generating 7 million kilowatt-hours of solar energy per year. Newman said this represents generation almost on a par with what the schools proposed in savings. It would be enough to power 650 homes and reduce the county’s carbon footprint 18 percent. The solar farm is expected to have a useful life of thirty to forty years.

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