Industries Energy/Green

Stewards of the land

Sustainable practices build on region’s agrarian tradition

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Print this page by James Heffernan

About two miles east of Harrisonburg, an underground pipeline channels methane gas from the nearby Rockingham County landfill to the new Rockingham Memorial Hospital (RMH). There the gas is used to heat the facility, power its hot-water heaters, and sterilize and steam-clean surgical instruments and medical equipment. The collaboration, the first of its kind in Virginia, helps reduce carbon emissions, provides a market for a local renewable energy source and saves the nonprofit hospital about $250,000 a year on energy costs.

“If we weren’t shipping the gas out, we would have to burn it off,” says Barry Hertzler, the county’s director of public works. “Otherwise it would tend to migrate underground and cause issues with people’s wells, basements, anything with an opening.”

The landfill produces about 700 cubic feet of methane per minute — enough to power the hospital’s three boilers, two of which were retrofitted with funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This enables RMH to run one boiler all year for cleaning purposes, another in the winter for heating and the third as a backup in case of a breakdown or routine maintenance.

As the sole beneficiary of the pipeline, RMH has an agreement with the county to purchase the gas through 2018.

“It is a win-win for the community and RMH,” says Dennis Coffman, the hospital’s director of facilities planning. “Burning methane gas from our local landfill that otherwise would have been wasted is one way we can be environmentally friendly and preserve the natural beauty of our community for years to come.”

The methane gas agreement is one of a growing number of green initiatives in a region of the commonwealth known for rolling farmland, mountain vistas and outdoor attractions such as the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah National Park.

“Valley residents have an innate sense of the importance of land stewardship and have always been respectful of the environment,” says Robin Sullenberger, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a regional economic development coalition. “Our agrarian nature and our tourism industry are dependent on it, and we stress that significantly in all of our economic development activities.”

The green movement has taken root in the valley as local stakeholders — residents, businesses, local governments, and colleges and universities — commit to maintaining the beauty and quality of life that helps drive the region’s economy.

Green entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship is at the forefront of the green movement in the valley. In Rockingham County, for example, Eastern Bioplastics is manufacturing biodegradable plastics from poultry feathers. The feathers contain keratin, a protein fiber that bonds well to different types of plastics. The Mount Crawford plant partners with companies to formulate bioplastic composite resins suitable for various applications. The resins are in the form of pellets, which can be melted down and injected into molds.

Eastern Bioplastics, led by Sonny Meyerhoeffer, is experimenting with different polymer blends. Potential uses include office furniture, automotive parts, sporting goods, poultry feeders and garden pots, which the company sells through its website and in bulk to commercial greenhouses. Feather-fiber reinforced plastic helps eliminate poultry feathers from the waste stream and reduces the plastic industry’s reliance on crude oil and natural gas.

Fresh herbs enthusiast Timothy Heydon also believes in the power of sustainability. His company, Shenandoah Growers, produces fresh-cut and organic herbs in a climate-controlled greenhouse in Rockingham County. The company collects rainwater for its closed-loop nutrient system; uses sticky tape, ladybugs and other natural predators to control pests; and researches environmentally friendly packaging and alternative heating systems.

“We think this is a great example of an organic local food system — how you can produce food responsibly, sustainably and organically in a relatively small space, without affecting the surrounding environment,” Heydon says.

Another Rockingham County business, Sunrnr (pronounced “Sun Runner”), offers portable renewable energy generators that store solar and wind turbine electricity for off-grid uses or emergency power. Alan Mattichak founded the company in 2004 after recognizing the need for an alternative energy storage system that is portable and rechargeable. After years of engineering, testing, design improvements and patenting, Sunrnr units are now available to the public. Its website has numerous testimonials from customers who use the generators for uses ranging from tailgating to camping.

Meanwhile, commercial wind farms face a tougher road in the valley. In 2007, the State Corporation Commission approved a 19-turbine wind farm in rural Highland County, but the project has yet to get off the ground. And in recent years, two companies have begun exploring the possibility of building large-scale wind turbines in western Rockingham County along the Virginia-West Virginia line, though neither firm has sought a special permit from the county.

Corporations do their part

The region’s corporate employers are going green as well.

Last year, MeadWestvaco Corp. invested $285 million in a biomass boiler and associated infrastructure at its chemical plant in Covington. The project has allowed the plant to become self-sufficient in energy production and significantly reduced operating and maintenance costs. The new boiler and related systems, which replaced two fossil-fuel units, primarily burn renewable biomass such as tree bark, wood residues often left behind from logging operations and water treatment plant residuals.

Longtime Rockingham County employer MillerCoors received a 2013 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for its recycling and sustainability efforts at its Elkton brewery.

Meanwhile, one of the region’s prime vacation resorts is now a little greener. The Homestead in Hot Springs, founded in 1766, is designated as a Virginia Green lodging facility for its efforts to reduce waste and minimize its carbon footprint. The mountain resort’s 483 guestrooms feature low-flow faucets and showerheads as well as individual thermostats. In addition, the resort’s used printer cartridges are donated to local elementary schools so that they can be exchanged for school supplies.

“I have seen staff go above and beyond the call of duty to see that we are effectively reducing waste,” says Jason Brown, the resort’s chief engineer, who is overseeing its sustainability efforts.

Practicing what they preach

Not to be outdone, area colleges and universities are practicing what they preach about sustainability.

On the campuses of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg and Washington & Lee University in Lexington, solar panel systems installed and operated by Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC harness the power of the sun to generate up to 10 percent of the schools’ annual electricity needs.

Secure Futures CEO Anthony E. Smith is an associate professor of business at EMU and co-director of its MBA program. He uses the solar program as a case study on the practical benefits of renewable energy. “EMU is demonstrating that solar power represents a good financial and social investment — doing good and doing well,” he said.

Likewise, W&L president Kenneth P. Ruscio says Secure Futures’ solar canopy on top of one of the university’s parking structures provides a model of stewardship and sustainability. “This is another instance of how we are aligning our institutional practices with what we preach to our students about their duties as responsible citizens and their obligations to future generations,” Ruscio says.

Public partnerships

Local governments are getting into the act as well.  The city of Staunton offers incentives encouraging green development practices within its Enterprise Zone. Any commercial or industrial property owner who makes repairs, renovations or other improvements resulting in at least a 40 percent increase in assessed value will receive a five-year exemption on the real property taxes associated with the improvements.

For the past two years, the Rockingham County landfill has been accepting large animal carcasses, mostly cattle, for composting. Hertzler, the county’s director of public works, says the project safely disposed of 700 cows last year alone.

In 2010, the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Investment Board received a $5 million federal grant for a new program training workers for the region’s emerging green technology manufacturing and renewable energy industries. The funding, awarded through the U.S. Department of Labor, provides work-force training for an estimated 1,000 valley residents in 10 counties and six cities.

The program’s partners include the work-force investment board’s five training centers and the region’s three vocational technical centers, as well as Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, Lord Fairfax Community College, Blue Ridge Community College, James Madison University and the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

“Training made possible by this grant will prepare our area’s workers for jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries, including occupations that have long-term demand and offer the potential for high wage, career pathway jobs,” says Bob Satterwhite, director of the work-force investment board.

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