County looking to bring in commercial greenhouses near landfill

Smiths Creek Sanitary Landfill manager Matt Williams points to property just east of the landfill where commercial greenhouses could potentially be built. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Smiths Creek Sanitary Landfill manager Matt Williams points to property just east of the landfill where commercial greenhouses could potentially be built. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

The county is looking at the Smiths Creek Sanitary Landfill as not just a place to dispose of refuse, but as a draw for new agri-business.

County officials are working with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the St. Clair County Economic Development Authority to attract commercial greenhouse developers in order to maximize the use of the landfill.

While plans are considered to be preliminary, Matt Williams, manager of the county landfill, said commercial greenhouses would be a good fit to be built near the landfill.

“We are exploring whether or not it makes economic sense for them and for us,” Williams said. “If a developer is interested and they will forward the capital, then we are willing to work with them.”

Since the landfill generates renewable energy from the excess amount of methane gas produced by its bioreactor, Williams said, a greenhouse could potentially use the energy for its day-to-day operations.

Without available water and sewer lines in the area, the field of possible businesses is slim.

Jeff Bohm, chairman of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, said greenhouses are a good consideration for the area because they don’t require water and sewer, but do need large amounts of electricity.

“With the landfill, we are going to be producing additional power in time because we are expanding the bioreactor, which will break down more trash and create more methane gas,” Bohm said. “This gas can then be converted into electricity.”

However, the landfill’s two generators are not able to create enough power to run an entire greenhouse operation, Bohm said.

A 30-acre greenhouse uses about 15 megawatts of power a day. The landfill generators produce slightly more than three megawatts.

The scenario of bringing greenhouses to the landfill area is dependent on the ITC transmission line a quarter mile north of the landfill.

Bohm said the plan would be to have DTE Energy tap into the transmission line. There would be sufficient capacity in that line to provide the energy needed to power a commercial greenhouse.

Two generators use methane gas to produce electricity at the Smiths Creek Sanitary Landfill in Kimball Township. The facility produces about three megawatts of electricity when running at full capacity. (Jeffrey Smith  | Times Herald)

Two generators use methane gas to produce electricity at the Smiths Creek Sanitary Landfill in Kimball Township. The facility produces about three megawatts of electricity when running at full capacity. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

The landfill could provide supplemental heating for greenhouse operations for a profit. The generators emit heat from its engines in the process of turning methane gas into electricity.

That heat is currently not being used for anything, Williams said.

The landfill already has a gas sale agreement with Blue Water Renewable — a subsidiary of DTE — which owns and operates the generators.

Blue Water Renewable is paid $99 per megawatt an hour by DTE. The county receives 25 percent of the gross sale in return for supplying the methane gas. The landfill would increase profits by using the unused heat.

“We provide them the fuel, and we get compensated a royalty of their gross sales in electricity to DTE,” Williams said. “It would be economically efficient capturing that heat to help heat a greenhouse.”

Dan Casey, chief executive officer of the EDA, said the produce would largely be used in local markets.

“We’ve worked with companies like Costco before, who like to have locally grown vegetables to service the market,” he said. “It would interest them to have a regional facility as opposed to a metro-Detroit region.”

Adding commercial greenhouses also would create jobs for county residents.

Williams said a one-acre greenhouse could provide as many as 10 to 15 jobs. Installing a 30-acre greenhouse would create hundreds of jobs.

However, the number depends on if the greenhouses are yearlong or seasonal.

“Some of the greenhouse operations use migrant workers and some don’t,” Casey said.

One hundred acres would be needed to attract bigger users for a greenhouse operation, Casey said.

Last year the county obtained a 72-acre parcel east of the landfill property.

Bohm said the county has met with some of the landowners around the landfill about purchasing property.

“Greenhouses require a lot of land,” Bohm said. “We own a portion of the property and would have to buy additional property. There are people who have expressed interest in selling.”

The county met with Kimball Township officials six months ago to discuss putting greenhouses near the landfill. Bohm said the county has kept Kimball Township involved because the landfill falls within its boundaries.

Robert Usakowski, supervisor of Kimball Township, said the greenhouses would fit into agricultural zoning.

“That area is our rural area of the township, and we would prefer to keep it that way,” Usakowski said. “The greenhouses would fit in with that. The county wanted to make sure the township would be OK with that type of development.”

Bohm said he got a clearer idea after visiting the commercial greenhouses near Leamington, Ontario, a year ago.

Leamington has the largest concentration of commercial greenhouses in North America, totaling 1,969 acres.

“They were impressive,” Bohm said. “It’s 30 acres of land under glass. You can’t see from one end to the other.”

While there is no timeframe for developing the greenhouses, Bohm said the county has met with the state.

“We met with MEDC officials three weeks ago at the EDA office to discuss the potential site and the infrastructure capabilities,” Bohm said.

The county and the EDA are in discussions with greenhouse operators from Canada and Michigan.

Casey said the county has courted the operators — whom he would not name — but the landfill was not a consideration until now.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 11, 2015)

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