idea sounds so outrageous that one is tempted to dub
it Fitch’s Folly. George Fitch, the promotional
genius behind the Jamaican bobsled team, the
tax-cutting mayor of Warrenton and the erstwhile
2005 Republican candidate for governor, has
set a new goal for himself: to make his town of some
5,000 inhabitants “energy independent” within
the near future.
has no source of coal, oil or natural gas. It has no
special hydroelectric potential. It is blessed with
no surfeit of sunlight to power photovoltaics, no
cornucopia of corn to convert to ethanol, no bounty
of breezes to run wind turbines. No, this
picturesque burg set amidst the rolling hills and
horse farms of Fauquier
County, has nothing that thousands of other small towns
dotting the American countryside have. Nothing, that
is, but the restless, creative energy of George Fitch.
wants to create ethanol and generate electricity
using biomass as a feedstock and fuel. What kind of biomass?
All kinds. The
waste that goes into the county landfill. Tree
clippings from forest maintenance. Corn husks and
switch grass. Wooden construction debris. Old tires. Sewage sludge. Virtually any organic
waste that can be rounded up from within a 20- to
25-mile distance from town that other people would
let rot or, better, pay to get rid of.
-- a parade of alternate-energy experts has been
filing in and out of Warrenton -- Fitch has
conceptualized a project that would cost about $30
million. It would generate about five megawatts of
electricity for sale into the electric grid, enough
to power about 5,500 households, and would yield 10
million gallons a year of ethanol. As long as the
price of ethanol stays above $1.25 a gallon (it's
about $2.25 right now) and the price of crude
stays above $38 per barrel (it's over $60), he says,
the project will be profitable.
a fiscal conservative," says Fitch. "Government shouldn't be
wasting peoples' money. We
have a landfill. We're taking garbage and burying it
the ground." That just doesn't make sense, he
the garbage is loaded with BTUs that can be
converted into electricity and liquid fuel.
is working to "tee up" the project, ensure
a reliable supply of biomass feedstock, find a
private-sector operator to take ownership, and lobby
for federal loan guarantees to reduce the risk for
investors. His goal is to negotiate terms that would allow him to
re-sell the electricity to Warrenton residents for
about half of what Dominion charges. "If my
residents are paying 5.9 per kilowatt to
Dominion," he says, "let’s bring that
down to three cents."
biomass project is part of a larger energy-
independence program. Much like Arlington County,
which recently launched an initiative to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, Fitch also is exploring
"green buildings, LEED certification, an energy
audit to establish a carbon footprint baseline, and
the capture of methane gas from the sewage treatment
plant. But as green as it is, Arlington isn't making
its own ethanol and electricity.
gasification technology is well understood, although
the engineering probably will need tweaking to
accommodate the wide range of waste products that
Fitch contemplates. As the mayor
describes it, the process entails heating the waste
materials to an extremely high temperature in the
absence of oxygen -- as
high as 2,000 degrees -- and then cooling it to 98
degrees. The material would not burn, it would
gasify, leaving about two percent of the original
volume as residue to dispose of. Waste heat from the
cooling would be used to generate electricity, while
the organic compounds in the gases would be
converted into ethanol.
the Warrenton project pans out, Fitch sees the idea
spreading nationally. U.S. energy
policy has focused mainly on large-scale ethanol
plants that convert corn. "They're overlooking
the most significant player in the space, and that's
local communities," he says. "There are
thousands of communities scattered across the United
states with waste in their back yards."
are implications for Virginia energy policy, too.
The environmental community is pushing a Renewable
Portfolio Standards bill that would require Virginia
electric utilities to generate 12 percent of their
power from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Although the legislation has been side-tracked while
the General Assembly takes up re-regulation of the
electric power industry, the issue is not likely to
go away. (See "Voltage
Hogs," March 5, 2007.) Municipal projects built around local
landfills across the state could make a significant
contribution to that 12-percent goal.
like renewable fuels like wind, solar, geothermal
and biomass because they don't pollute. Renewables
have an economic edge, too: The "fuel" is
essentially is free. In the case of biomass, people
actually pay to dispose of it. That provides
rate-payers protection against rising fuel prices.
projects like the one Fitch proposes also are
consistent with a "distributed generation"
approach to organizing the electric power grid. In
theory, an electric grid consisting of many small
producers located close to their consumers is more
stable and less vulnerable to disruptive blackouts
than a system depending upon massive power plants
linked by equally giant transmission lines.
you drop in a five-megawatt plant and flow the power
into the distribution grid, there's a range of
benefits," says Brad Schneider, founder of
Recovered Energy Resources, a Rappahannock County
company that designs biomass-to-energy plants, who
has advised Fitch. Balancing the grid with locally
generated electricity affects the harmonics and
stability of the system. "That allows [the
power company] to actually put more power through
existing lines they have in place -- without adding
any new equipment, without new cable."
Warrenton and the northern piedmont, grid harmonics
are no small thing. Dominion wants to run a
transmission line through the region in order to
wheel more electricity from the Midwest into
Northern Virginia. Not only would a Warrenton power
plant increase the supply of locally generated
electricity, a better load balance in the region
might enable the power company to increase the
capacity of existing transmission lines.
got excited about the potential for biofuels after
attending a state energy conference in Lexington.
Since then, he's discussed the idea with a number of
companies and university professors with competing
gasification technologies. He's had conversations
with oil giant Chevron, which wants to get into the
field. He's even chatted with John Deere, which is
developing machinery that reaps grain and stalks in
a single sweep, then separates the stalks for use as
an ethanol feedstock, about partnering on the
next phase of the project is finding $300,000 for
design and engineering. That's more than Warrenton
can afford, but Uncle Sam is handing out
renewable-energy grants like bingo cards in an old
folks home. Fitch thinks he has a shot at getting
support. His argument: A successful demonstration of
the technology in Warrenton could open up
opportunities for municipalities across the country.
insists that his project would stand on its own
merits. But as gravy for investors, there is a host
of credits and incentives. There's a
$.51-cent-a-gallon credit for ethanol, plus an extra
$.10-a-gallon for small producers. There's a credit
of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour for producers of
"green" electricity, and $20 per ton for
using agricultural/forest residue to produce energy.
A loan guarantee from the federal government would
eliminate any remaining risk for private investors.
is the largest source of renewable energy right now
after hydro. The trick is getting financing for the
first project" demonstrating an unproven
technology, says Mary Bacon, a partner with
Ewing Bemiss who specializes in financing renewable
energy projects. (Yes, she is related -- she's my
sister.) The economics
of wood waste have been attractive for a long time.
Cow manure is a proven source of power -- if you can
get enough of it. She's even raising money now for a
company that wants to convert sewage sludge into
fuel. "There's a lot of money trying
to find deals. It can all happen. I think it
working in Fitch's favor: The Kaine administration
is eager to support renewable fuels in Virginia.
Although the Commonwealth has limited resources to
devote to the sector, it can function as an
intermediary between entrepreneurs like Fitch,
academic resources and market opportunities. Dr. Y.H.
Percival Zhang at Virginia Tech, for instance, has
developed a promising biochemical process to convert
cellulosic material (wood waste, corn stalks, switch
grass) into ethanol in small-scale biorefineries.
Meanwhile, the Department of Mines, Minerals and
Energy has spotted some potentially large ethanol
customers in the state -- the oil refinery in
Yorktown is one, military bases are another -- that
local vendors could sell to.
is bursting with enthusiasm at the potential for his
project. He thinks he's got all the angles covered,
although he's wise enough to temper his comments
with a note of caution: "There’s
a huge caveat. Like most things new, you go through
a trial-and-error process. You go up the learning
outside observer like Mary Bacon thinks he has a
realistic shot at success. "I applaud him. What
he's doing is terrific," she says. "If
he's realistic about his time frame, he can be