Renewable-energy company Verdante considers city for warehouse

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 07:25 AM

The prospect of turning Lenoir into a regional supplier of renewable energy resources might have seemed farfetched not long ago.

But that very thing may start taking shape in the coming year, when Verdante BioEnergy, the only substantial renewable-energy venture in the county, plans to leverage the same natural resources that once helped sustain the furniture industry, such as wood, for liquid biofuel.

It is a venture that “makes sense for our region,” said David Waechter, president of Verdante, which received a $70,000 grant this past year from the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. The state agency, financed by the General Assembly, seeks to develop the renewable energy sector as part of a state mandate to reduce petroleum by 10 percent across North Carolina by 2017.

Waechter said he plans to use the money to visit renewable energy storage sites in Knoxville, Tenn., and Missouri to determine whether such an operation is viable in Lenoir, where he hopes in the coming year to develop a warehouse for biological waste – such as vegetable oil and a variety of wood chips and residue from local trees – used by refineries making biofuel. As a condition of the grant, the company is required to finish its visits within nine months, after which it will determine whether to build a storage facility.

The financial support, Waechter said, will help his company “get legs” in 2016, when he expects industry leaders to start producing ethanol with wood chips and other biological waste that emit less pollution than using corn.

“We know for sure, no matter what type of conservation technology they have, they’re going to need feedstock” for fuel, he said by phone last week from Minneapolis, Minn., where he attended a conference on renewable energy, where he said there were representatives at least a half dozen biofuel companies from around Charlotte and Greensboro.

The grant was obtained through Newton-based forestry and agricultural nonprofit Carolina Land and Lakes, led by an advisory council made up of officials from six counties, including Caldwell, who work to improve water and air quality and other environmental standards.

An Alexander County official who is a part of the council suggested developing a renewable energy project about a year ago, after which the nonprofit sought to work with Verdante to bring a biofuel storage facility to Caldwell, where an abundance of wood and sawdust and other forms of biofuel would help sustain the operation. Verdante last year developed a mobile app designed to identify consumers and producers of biofuel across the country and abroad.

“We know it can be done,” said Donna Lichtenwalner, project director for Carolina Land and Lakes. 

The nonprofit, originally financed by the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has relied entirely on grants and other donations to spread its conservancy efforts since the late 2000s.

Lichtenwalner said the nonprofit plans to work with Verdante in the coming months to educate the public, including farmers who are eligible for federal funding for growing renewable crops like certain grasses with high concentrations of sugar and other components, about the importance of conserving alternative energy sources.

“Bioenergy, right now, is really big,” she said, adding that a Burke County manufacturer is shipping abroad large amounts of wood she said could help supply energy in the county. “People don’t understand.”

She noted that a data center opened by Apple in Maiden in the late 2000s led to the deforestation of about 100 acres, across which Apple installed solar panels.

“All that stuff is biomass,” Lichtenwalner said of the felled trees. “It can be used for something else.”