By Blenda Copeland
Last year in September, a global, South Korea-originated company announced it was on track to possibly open its first waste-to-green energy plant in the United States – in Russell County, Ala. – potentially within a year or so. The company’s Duluth, Ga.-based CEO and others were expected to scout the county for a potential plant site last October.
On Feb. 28, the company, known in short as PER Kentec, returned to hold a question and answer session at the Phenix City Courtyard by Marriott hotel for individuals and technical interests.
CEO Mathias Lee confirmed to The Citizen that a plant site has not yet been selected; however, if and when a site is chosen, construction could likely be completed within the year.
A few community stakeholders attended the session, including Russell County Commission Chairwoman Peggy Martin; Russell County Sanitation Department Director Wanda Hardie; Russell County’s new Economic Development and Tourism Director Victor Cross; Phenix City’s new city councilwoman; a Lee County commissioner; Roz Durden, communications representative for WestRock (formerly Meadwestvaco); community members; potential investors/landholders and others.
Attendees listened to a presentation by the company’s liaison, Nick Autrey, and Sung Chung Kim, who explained the complex technical and scientific aspects of the plant.
According to Kim, the plant uses pyrolysis and gasification, making it different from incineration, also known as combustion (the difference is that PER Kentec’s plant uses higher temperatures). He explained how solid waste is collected, compressed and packed in big, hygienic rectangular-shaped bales that can be stored for up to three years. He also explained how the waste is processed at very high temperatures in the plant and how the resulting byproducts can be used. The presentation also covered financial data.
Some of the questions attendees asked regarded the safety of processing waste materials like paint; safety issues and hazards, if any, such as employee safety and the safety of emissions; and who profits from the end product.
Lee County Commissioner John Andrew Harris was among those who attended the company’s Q and A session.
Referring to an comment made during the presentation, Harris said Lee County already has a solid waste authority that covers Auburn, Opelika and Lee County.
“It’s an attractive system,” he opined, speaking solely for himself based on what he’d seen of the company’s presentation. He said he could envision the savings such technology could bring, noting that Lee County has a transfer station from which the county’s refuse is taken to the Tallapoosa County landfill. “That’s what I like about this (proposal) – is the savings and not so many problems,” Harris opined of the proposed plant’s possibilities. Harris further shared that while the plant appears positive, it’s important to some people to be able to see a pre-existing example in this country that they could see and touch and feel. Regardless, he said he would be open to the idea of expanding Lee County’s municipal waste authority into something like a regional waste authority and working out revenue-sharing details with others who might be willing to join the authority.
Phenix City Councilwoman Vickey Carter Johnson said she would like to research the plant more, but on a preliminary level, based on what she’d seen and heard, “This could be a great resource that we could use that would be futuristic” in that it would be a way to dispose of solid waste and yet produce green energy. She has asked the company’s liaison to consider giving a presentation to the Phenix City Council. “I think this is a great opportunity, for sure,” she added, regarding how it could potentially serve the community.
Currently, the City of Phenix City and Russell County dispose of solid waste by transferring it to landfills, as do WestRock and Lee County.
A regional community member, Saad Ahmed, who has ties to Columbus and Ft. Mitchell, said he processed the presentation from an investor’s mindset. Profitability is a question that investors ponder with any proposal: is the project feasible? “The technology’s great – I get it,” he said, noting that what also must be considered is the company’s business model and how it works. Ahmed said he’d personally like to see current plants of the kind of which the presenters spoke.
Currently, the proposed plant for Russell County would be capable of processing around 100-200 tons of solid waste, according to Russell County’s Economic Development and Tourism Director Victor Cross.