When regulators from the N.C. Division of Air Quality shut down Active Energy Renewable Power in Lumberton, they did so because the company was installing two pieces of equipment that would further reduce air emissions, while the state says the additional equipment was not in the original design.
Supporters of the project in Lumberton tell Carolina Journal they’re worried that despite the wood-pellet manufacturing facility being considered a clean energy project, opposition to it from left-leaning environmental groups may be slowing the permitting process to the point that the entire project, a vital investment in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties, may be at risk.
Active Energy Group is in the finishing stages of re-outfitting the former Alamac American Knits plant for use as the base of its biomass processing operations, called Active Energy Renewable Power.
“Active Energy Group, a United Kingdom-based forestry management company, acquired the nearly 60-year-old, 415,000-square-foot facility and surrounding acreage two years ago from Alamac Holdings as part of a $50 million investment the company anticipates making in Robeson County,” reported the Robesonian.
According to Biomass Magazine , testing by the University of Utah’s Institute for Clean and Secure Energy showed that CoalSwitch wood pellets could be burned with coal or alone with no heat loss. The wood pellets burn cleaner than coal, and power plants don’t have to make major changes to their plants.
“For the first time, or the first time to our knowledge, the glass wall between coal and biomass usage within existing power generation plants has been shattered,” Active Energy told Biomass Magazine.
In summer 2000 the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality issued a preliminary permit for Active Energy Renewable Power to operate a wood-pellet manufacturing facility, based on the determination that the project could be approved and the full DEQ permit issued if certain permit conditions were met.
But now the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has taken exception to additional air-emission reduction equipment because it was not on the original engineering schematic, according to a notice of violation from Heather Carter, regional air-quality supervisor for DEQ.
“Currently, Active Energy has a permit that was issued on August 3, 2020,” wrote DEQ spokesperson Zaynab Nasif in response to an email inquiry from CJ. “North Carolina General Statute 143-215.018 requires that construction of new air-pollution sources or modifications to the sources must be covered under a permit issued by DAQ prior to construction.
“The construction of Active Energy’s control devices, and changing the method of operation before obtaining an air-quality permit that reflects these modifications, constitute a violation of this statute. The application that Active Energy has submitted appears to indicate an increase in potential emissions due to these modifications. Active Energy is required to apply for a permit modification in order to comply with the General Statute.
“DAQ-issued permits include specific requirements for monitoring and record keeping, reporting, inspection and maintenance, and source testing. DAQ is charged with ensuring permittees comply with the conditions of their permits and all applicable state and federal regulations.”
In a “Notice of Violation” letter sent to AERP in Lumberton, DAQ’s Heather Carter wrote that the division learned that new equipment installed to further reduce air emissions had not been noted on the original “process flow design” submission.
Meanwhile, the prospect for up to 100 new clean energy jobs in a Tier One county is put on hold while the company awaits their modified permit.
“We have been actively working with the Division of Air Quality, the Division of Water Quality and the Department of Environmental Quality on the appropriate permits for the final construction of our production facility in North Carolina,” said Mr. Michael Rowan, chief executive officer for London-based Active Energy Group.
“Our engineers and attorneys have been transparent and accommodating the DAQ in their requests for information regarding the installation of control devices, which DAQ acknowledges will further enhance air emissions reduction at our facility,” said Mr. Rowan. “DAQ made a site visit to our facility and AERP has already submitted a modified permit application. We have been forthright and straightforward with DAQ in our efforts to improve air particulate emissions from the facility. When we were advised to cease construction on the relevant devices to provide time for DAQ to review the modified application, we promptly complied.”
“Representatives from our city have met with AERP and we welcome this new technology and innovation in the biomass industry,” said Lumberton Mayor Bruce Davis. “We believe Active Energy will be a good neighbor and good corporate citizen in our city.”
“There’s no doubt that Lumberton needs the jobs,” David said. “The state recruited this industry to our community. I am very hopeful that the state regulators will work with the company to expedite its opening. AERP has been open and transparent and has assured me that they will take all steps to meet state and local guidelines to protect our air and water resources.”
The project was recruited for Lumberton by the state. The company has been trying to get fully permitted and up and running for 18 months.
Now the question is what, if any, influence is being applied to hold up this permit from The Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center, two left-leaning organizations that generally oppose the wood chip industry.
Both organizations have been relentless in their opposition to this clean-energy project, with the Dogwood Alliance, which has a mission of protecting forests, making a direct call on Gov.Roy Cooper and other state leaders to reject the wood pellet industry outright. The Southern Environment Law Center has attacked the wood pellet industry across all of the Southeastern United States.
It is worth noting that many organizations committed to healthy forests believe the responsible use of forest products creates incentives for property owners to manage their forests rather than convert them to other uses with a higher financial return, such as development. It also lessens the damage of wildfires.
Is the Lumberton plant caught up in an environmental tug of war? A difficult permitting process in North Carolina is slower than in other states? It is impossible to know at this time. But this much is clear. A clean-energy plant is being denied a permit, because of its efforts to be even cleaner, and critical jobs are now at risk.