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Four years ago, London-based Active Energy Renewable Power (AERP) rolled into Robeson county with bold ideas and big promises of jobs and a cleaner biomass energy production with its new patented technology. CoalSwitch was touted as a replacement or companion fuel that converts biomass, including low quality forestry materials and wood waste, into pellets or briquettes that can be used directly in coal-fired power stations without significant retrofitting.
AERP's outlined plan convinced the state Department of Commerce to provide the company with a $500,000 reuse grant to help purchase and convert the shuttered 415,000 square foot Alamac American Knits factory. Today, the company announced it was selling the factory to Phoenix Investors, a commercial real estate firm in Milwaukee.
“We appreciate the support we have received from the community and its leaders in Lumberton and Robeson County,” said CEO Michael Rowan in a media release. “We still believe there is significant opportunity for CoalSwitch in the region and look forward to future collaboration with the state.”
This is hardly the first time the company’s announced plans that didn’t pan out, says Lumber Riverkeeper Jeff Currie. “Over the last 10 years around the world, they've done this numerous times,” says Currie. “They've got a history in Canada of promising things and not coming through with it. They've got a history in Europe where they started some operations and kind of just left. I don't know how their shareholders aren't screaming mad because they owe a lot of money.”
AERP came to Lumberton in 2018 after it entered into a joint venture with Georgia Renewable Power LLC. The plant was supposed to be up and running in Q4 2019 and producing 50 tonnes per hour by the end of 2020. But it didn’t take long for those plans to go awry.
The company admitted to NC DEQ that they had no way to calculate air emissions but claimed they would be insignificant. The agency disagreed. It said the new proposed process would significantly increase toxic air emissions and issued a violation to the company for failing to get state approval for building new equipment and changing the process design.
“It's one of the most bizarre things I've ever been through with dealing with this situation,” says Currie. “At one point, I thought they were kind of clueless but I think it’s more than that. We had to file a 60 day letter just for them to get a simple stormwater runoff permit.”
In an effort to collect air and water quality data the company hoped would convince DEQ to issue a revised permit, AERP moved its wood pellet operation to Ashland, Maine for a trial operation. Despite receiving a temporary authorization from that state’s environmental authorities, the operations shut down because of equipment problems before any testing was conducted.
In the news release announcing plans to sell the Lumberton facility Rowan said the company’s singular focus was on getting the New England facility operational. Local activists say that strong community opposition to the Lumberton facility made the difference.
“The local impacted community deserves a lot of credit for the win,” says Robeson County resident and Lumbee Tribe Elder Donna Chavis. “We are stronger together.”