Jim Turner -- April 30th, 2010
Guest blogger Jim Turner concludes his series on Fibrowatt.
Although it wasn’t anticipated to turn out this way, the March 2, 2010 Page County Board of Supervisors meeting turned into a forum where several of the Supervisors made statements against Fibrowatt’s proposal. This is reported on Fibrowatt’s own blog in an entry that also references a PDF of the letter the company received from the Board’s Chairman Johnny Woodward, excerpted below:
“On behalf of the Page County Board of Supervisors, I would like to thank you for your presentation of Fibrowatt to the Board on March 2, 2010. After considerable discussion and consideration among my colleagues on the Board, we feel that the County is not positioned to accept an opportunity from Fibrowatt to locate a facility in Page County.”
The meeting was well attended, as reported in the Page News and Courier and several other blogs who were following the Page County developments. The meeting’s surprising outcome pre-empted a proposed five-step process for evaluating the plant, outlined in this PDF that was given to attendees at the meeting, and is summarized below:
• Initial Contact Phase: A prospective business interested in locating in Page County either contacts the EDA directly or is referred by another source.
• Initial Exploratory Phase: … begins with the preliminary dialogue with the prospective business and usually involves a presentation of the company’s proposal. …usually conducted under a condition of non-disclosure imposed by the prospective business.
• Advanced Exploratory Phase: … involves a more detailed fact-finding effort to determine the general suitability of the business for location in Page County …
• Due Diligence Phase: Progression through this phase includes conducting a detailed fact-finding …Early in this phase Fibrowatt, LLC will form a Citizen’s Advisory Group to assist in assessing the feasibility of locating its facility in Page County.
• Final Phase: The EDA examines all of the available information and either rejects the prospective business’ proposal or makes a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors to approve the location of the business in the county.
Page’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) deemed the process to be in Step 2 for the March meeting, and foresaw another year of investigation, but the Supervisors had effectively ended the process during this meeting.
For my part, on the Hawksbill Cabin blog, I did enough independent research to come down firmly on the “against” side of the Fibrowatt proposition. While I didn’t set out to advocate, for the reasons I’ll summarize below, it did turn out that way in the end, and I wrote and mailed a “snail mail” letter to local business owners, the Board of Supervisors, and the Page News and Courier. My letter expressed my opinion that the risks of damaging our scenic Valley with the plant, which could affect one of our two key economic engines, tourism, just seemed too great.
Here is a summary of the issues I became concerned with regarding the potential location of a Fibrowatt plant in the Shenandoah Valley area, besides the potential impact on Valley tourism. To be clear on this, these are my conclusions, summarized from my blog:
• Environmental concerns – the technology is an incineration process, and there are byproducts. They need a 300-foot stack to disperse the steam and particulate matter – which includes a number of toxins. They’ll argue the particulates are released in miniscule amounts; however, if that is a 7/24/365 operation, when does miniscule become an amount that is overwhelming? And how much of these toxins are a “good thing,” anyway?
• There is also the matter of the semi truck traffic that will be required to haul the litter – more than 100 trucks a day making round trips into the plant – the roads aren’t designed for this and there’s a lot of carbon in truck exhaust.
• Second, the economic impacts are overstated – Fibrowatt claims to create construction jobs, which are short-term or contract-based during the construction period. Then there is the claim that there are a residual 30+ jobs once the plants open – these jobs come at the cost of eliminating one group of jobs, the independent distributor of chicken litter – we were never satisfied that we could get an accurate count of the net increase in jobs, because these impacts were understated or ignored.
• Another point is the actual competition for raw materials once the plant is operational – they mix the litter with wood chips (the raw material that makes up litter) to control humidity for optimal burning. So they compete on the resource side with a potential impact that increases raw materials prices for the farmers. Last one, they enter into long-term contracts with the farmers for the litter at reduced prices – this we heard from our own farmers who said they’d have to do better than that to be taken seriously – creating a squeeze by reducing revenues at the same time as increasing costs.
Having just gone through a long process of examining what the company does (I learned that I had 38 posts on this topic on the blog, with a word count of 22,000!) – turning biomass into electricity – and evaluating for my own purposes on my site as to whether I thought this was a good operation for Page County, I thought I might turn my series of blog posts into a summary for others to reference. Thanks to the editors and readers at hburgnews.com for the opportunity to share this information.
Jim Turner is a management consultant in his day job, but his real passion is the weekends he spends at the Hawksbill Cabin, near Stanley and Luray, Virginia. He keeps a blog on the weekender lifestyle, which is where this material about Fibrowatt and Page County was first published.