Episode 22: Renewable Fuels Drive Education and an Artistic Revolution in Jackson County - Transcript
Dave Karlsgodt 0:00
Welcome to the Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast. In each episode, we'll talk with leading campus professionals, thought leaders, engineers, and innovators addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing higher ed and corporate campuses. Our discussions will range from energy conservation and efficiency to planning and finance, from building science to social science, from energy systems to food systems, we hope you're ready to learn, share and ultimately accelerate your institution towards solutions. I'm your host, Dave Karlsgodt. I'm a principal at Fovea, an energy, carbon, and business planning firm.
Timm Muth 0:33
So we're trying to help people to change their mindset about how they look at waste material. Don't let someone else tell you what is possible. If we had listened to people who told us what wasn't possible, this place would never exist. If you really want to dig down far enough, that's what we're trying to do with the Green Energy Park. We're trying to open people's minds to the idea of renewable energy and that renewable energy can be powerful.
Dave Karlsgodt 1:03
In today's episode, we're going to do something a little bit different. I'm joined here today by one of our summer interns, Sarah Barr. And what you're going to hear is an episode or a project that Sarah's been working on this summer. This is something that she has produced and recorded and edited to create this episode. So Sarah, maybe just start off by telling us a little bit about who you are and then maybe give a preview of what we're about to hear.
Sarah Barr 1:25
Yeah, so I'm a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I'm currently a senior, I'm about to enter my first year of a master's program. And I'm studying environmental studies and communication. So this episode this summer, it really ties into what I'm already learning in school with everything about sustainability and renewable energy, and then working with a podcast, obviously, really supplemented by my work with strategic communication.
Dave Karlsgodt 1:54
Well, there were a couple of things I really liked about this interview, when you first pitched this idea to me, you know, I thought it was interesting, but I wasn't really sure where it was going to go. But I really liked Timm's enthusiasm. In fact, I don't think he ever actually lets you complete a question before he started answering it, which really cracked me up.
Sarah Barr 2:10
Dave Karlsgodt 2:11
And I loved how, at first blush, you know, this seems like a quaint little project, but he starts pulling in all the different threads, you really see how many different ways it connects to sustainability. Yeah, so give us a little bit of a preview. And let's let's get into it.
Sarah Barr 2:26
Right. Yeah. When I, when I first started thinking about the episode, I wanted it to be about, you know, waste resources being repurposed in higher ed, specifically methane. I was thinking about interviewing all these different sources at UNC, for example, uses methane to heat buildings, so I was trying to line up all these different interviews. But then, after interviewing Timm, I realized I, I probably didn't need any material beyond that, just because of how passionate he was about the project and because of the breadth of the project. He touches on so many different aspects of sustainability. So there's obviously the environmental sustainability, using methane from this landfill that would otherwise be just leaking out into the atmosphere to make art and provide people artists with a living. There's the educational aspect of it. So he's got educational programs for everyone, from little kindergarten kids up to retirees, and then there's the community benefits because they do a lot for the community a nd I think that really touches on the social side of sustainability. And it's just a good centerpiece of the community.
Dave Karlsgodt 3:34
Great. All right. Anything else we need to know? Are we ready to dive in?
Sarah Barr 3:37
Yeah, I think we can dive right in. And I hope everyone will enjoy this this episode with Timm Muth from the Green Energy Park in Jackson County, North Carolina. So Timm, it's great to have you on the show today. Thank you for coming.
Timm Muth 3:50
Thank you for having me.
Sarah Barr 3:51
So you're here to tell us a little bit today about the Jackson County Green Energy Park. So what is this place and what makes it special?
Timm Muth 3:59
Sure. So the Jackson County Green Energy Park is a county led initiative, where we use methane gas from an old landfill, as well as other renewable energy resources to provide process heat for what we call the fire arts. So that's glassblowing, blacksmithing, metal foundry, and ceramics. All of those arts need high levels of process heat. Typically, that's created using fossil fuels. So we're using renewable energy resources to provide that heat instead. So we provide economic benefits for our community. We provide environmental benefits by dealing with these waste products. And we deliver educational opportunities by being able to bring in school kids and other visitor groups who want to learn about what we're doing here.
Sarah Barr 4:48
Great. And could you give us just a quick dive into your background, maybe where you worked before this and how you came to be involved in the project?
Timm Muth 4:55
Sure. I've been an engineer in the, mostly in the energy industry, all my career. But in the early 2000s, I moved out here for other reasons. I didn't really want to do engineering anymore. But the county approached me with a problem they were having with this landfill and felt like they were getting confusing recommendations on what could or couldn't be done with the, with the landfill. So they asked me to come in and take a look at it. And it went from being a three year project for me to...what? 15 years here, something like that? The project has certainly evolved as time has gone on. But prior to here, I was at the North Carolina State Energy Office running all the renewable programs that they were funding across the state.
Sarah Barr 5:39
So you already had an interest in renewables?
Timm Muth 5:41
Yes, yeah. So I started off actually, oddly enough, as a nuclear engineer. I always wanted to do renewables, but at the time, that just wasn't available back in the mid-80s. But it allowed me to be able to see power generation on large utility scale, and then to be able now to be working on a small renewable scale has given me a good appreciation for the industry as a whole and to be able to make more informed arguments against decentralized power versus large monolithic power generation.
Sarah Barr 6:11
So, how is the landfill producing methane and why is that a problem for the environment and for human health as well?
Timm Muth 6:19
Creating biomethane is a very basic biological process, right? When we bring in the little kids, we start that conversation by saying, "Okay, what happens when you eat too many beans?" They all understand that, it's the same process, right? You have bacteria, whether they're in the landfill or in our bellies, that are breaking down organic material in the absence of oxygen. So bacteria that do that produce methane as a byproduct. So every landfill anywhere, if it has organic material in there, it's going to be creating methane. The big problem there? Well, there's several problems with it, but the biggest problem is that methane is a huge contributor to global climate change in that its ability to trap heat within our atmosphere is somewhere 25, 28 times worse than CO2. So just allowing gas from a landfill to escape and go into the air unburnt is just a terrible addition to anything else out there that can contribute to global climate change. When we burn that methane off, you end up with CO2 and H2O. So just got CO2 and water vapor. It doesn't go away completely, but at least we've changed it. So it's 24, 27 times less bad for our environment than it would have been if it was just in the form of methane going up. The other thing about methane is, not only is it a contributor to climate change, but it's flammable. In certain concentrations, it's explosive. It's also poisonous. So, it's just not something you want leaking out of the ground. You know, whether it's a safety issue for the people that mow the grass, or the fact that if you don't extract the methane, it has a nasty habit of building up in pressure underground, and then it starts finding cracks in the ground. So it can move actually a large distance away from the landfill itself and then start coming out of the ground or in someone's basement or something. So it's really important with these landfills to be actively drawing that gas out and using it or destroying it in a controlled fashion so you know where that gas is going and it isn't just escaping into the air.
Sarah Barr 8:15
So besides mitigating climate change as you just mentioned, are there any other benefits to extracting and burning off this methane?
Timm Muth 8:23
Obviously, by using the methane as fuel, rather than letting it go up into the atmosphere, we're providing a measurable environmental benefit. You know, we generally are destroying about 40 cubic feet of gas a minute. Over the course of a year, that's about enough gas to cover a football field about 300 feet high. So it's not an insubstantial amount of gas. In addition to methane coming out of the landfill, there are also going to be other pollutants, especially in an old landfill like this, you can imagine there's old cars and refrigerators and air conditioners and cans of paint, who knows what in there. All that stuff leaks out eventually and a lot of those chemicals are really harmful. And they're going to go one of two places, right? They're either going to turn into a gas, and they're going to leak out with the methane, or they're going to dissolve into any water that's in that hill, and then gradually move offsite with the water and there's a river at the bottom of the hill. So that's where it's going to end up, one of those two places, right? So by actively drawing the methane out, we create a vacuum inside the landfill. Well then, in a vacuum state, that encourages those chemicals to volatize, to turn into a gas, because pressure's so much less. And then that enables us to be able to draw those other gases out along with the methane. So in this landfill, the chemicals of concern were benzene, dichlorobenzene, and dichloroethene. We can pull all those out with the methane gas. And all those will burn up in our glass or metal equipment in here at such high temperatures that it really destroys those chemicals. One problem that you have with landfills that have a lot of PVC pipe into them is that they leach out this dichloroethene, dichlorobenzene, so those chlorine compounds are coming out. And if those are burned at a lower temperature like you might do if you have a flare, you're just burning the gas off, then those chlorine compounds can chemically turn into dioxins, which are really terrible, carcinogenic, mutogenic chemicals that should never exist in nature. And they're really terrible when they get out there in our environment. But when you do the research, you find out that the best way to prevent dioxin creation or destroying dioxins, once they are created, is burning them at ultra high temperatures with a lot of air, a lot of turbulence, and keeping them inside of a combustion chamber for a period of time. It just so happens that the furnaces, the glory holes, and the forges that we have, that's exactly how they operate, with a lot of air, a lot of turbulence, a lot of high temperatures. So just sort of almost by accident, we just happen to have perfect equipment here for destroying these other noxious chemicals.
Sarah Barr 10:55
So you're talking about how important it is to deal with methane coming out of landfills. But I haven't heard of any sort of product similar to this before, have you heard of any product doing something with their methane gas?
Timm Muth 11:05
Sure, so most large landfills in the country do extract their gas and generally what they're doing is they're using that gas to run a combustion turbine, and they're generating electricity with it. You don't hear a whole lot about it because well, for one, landfills like to keep a very low profile, you know? They're not anybody's favorite, so they just like to keep their head down and figure people will ignore them. You have to understand too that landfill managers, they don't make their money off of selling gas, they make their money off of taking trash in. For them, generally, the gas is just a hassle that they have to deal with. So the easiest way for them to deal with it is if a third party's willing to come in and say, "Hey, we'll put in all the equipment to suck this gas out and then we'll use it for something and we'll cut you a check every month for the gas that we use." Well, that's easy for them, that's what they would like to do. And that works out okay for these large landfills. But the problem with these small landfills like what we have and to give you an understanding of...our landfill's about 750,000 tons of trash. Large landfills might have 50 million tons of trash in there. So this is a really tiny landfill, it doesn't create enough gas to make it economical to come in and put in a combustion turban and generate electricity. And you could do it but the amount of electricity you're going to make is so small, you probably never pay off your equipment costs. So with that fact in place, then that means no large companies are going to come in and develop that because that's a money losing prospect for them. So they don't want to get involved. And they're the ones that have the expertise in dealing with landfill gas. So then it gets kicked back to whoever owns the landfill, which is probably the county or municipality or something like that. Well, they generally don't have a landfill gas expert on staff, they may not even have an engineer on staff. So they don't really know what to do with gas. And often what happens is somebody tells them, Oh, you don't have enough gas to do anything with just let it go up into the air. If the EPA allows them to get away with that, then that's what they're going to do because I so cheap a solution. So it really comes down to especially with these small landfills, is just having somebody there that has a vision of what could be done with the gas, and who's stubborn enough, just keep kicking at it until it works. It's not always an easy process. Technically, it's an easy process. It's very simple getting gas on the ground, push it down here and burden, that's not a problem. It's trying to educate people about why that's a valuable thing to do. So back, your earlier question about why this doesn't get done very often, is because people lack vision, people lack the ability to look outside the box. And often it just lacks the political will for someone to put the funds into it to make something happen. This isn't a cheap venture to build a facility like this. And it's hard for a politician to say okay, well, we invested a million dollars and we got $5 million back in whatever art sales or something, it's not so cut and dry. You know, you have look at the economic impact of both the you know, sales that happened in our gallery, the taxes that people pay, when they buy stuff, the taxes that our artists pay when they make money, the economic impact of tourists coming into town to see what we've got going on here. The value of the educational aspect, I just had a group of engineering students from Southwestern Community College and this morning, when they come in, learn about well, what do engineers do in a place like this? You know, I've had college groups come out from a bioethics, because they wanted to talk about well, why is it that landfills are always located in the poor communities, you never see a landfill in a gated community, right? It's always outside of town or in the poor town or the poor side of town or something like that. And talk about how this happens time. And again, whether it's a landfill or somebody dumping electronic waste or some kind of other hazardous waste, it often goes to an Indian reservation, or a very poor country overseas or something like that. So that's an education that they're not going to get anywhere else, it certainly is very valuable to us, we just can't put a price on.
Sarah Barr 11:10
Okay, and moving along from the environmental benefits, there's also a lot of community benefits that we talked about before that are involved in this project. Could you talk a little bit about maybe education, tourism, anything like that?
Timm Muth 15:15
So we do a lot of educational tours throughout the year. In fact, once the school year's in, we're usually doing at least one tour a week. That ranges from everything from homeschool groups and elementary schools, on up through college students, to groups of retirees, to professionals from other countries, even. When we, obviously when we have school groups in, we're giving them a very valuable education on everything from heat transfer to microbiology to sustainability, a lot of different areas that we touch on here, and they can see all these in action. The other benefit that that brings to the community is not only are we educating kids, but these tourist groups come in and, you know, they're here for an hour and a half or two hours. And then a lot of times, especially they're vacationing, well then they want to know where to go afterwards. So we can give them things that show them where to go to eat in town, or if they're into fishing, we can give them the fly fishing trail map that keeps them in Jackson County or whatever. Case in point, this year when the Mini Cooper Club came out, you know, that was 125 Mini Coopers I think so roughly 250 people that came in here over three days. They bought stuff out of the gallery, they bought art from our artists, but then they went downtown and they bought dinner and beer and chocolate and everything like that. So especially in a small town like Dillsboro, that's a big influx of cash, you know? And frankly, those people wouldn't have come here if the Green Energy Park hadn't been here. The uniqueness of the facility certainly draws in a larger or additional number of tourists that may not come otherwise. And then they spread that economic benefit out through the town in the community.
Sarah Barr 16:51
And speaking of uniqueness, you're the only place in the country that runs forges on renewable energy?
Timm Muth 16:56
Yes. So, as far as I know, we're the only glass shop that runs on landfill gas. There used to be two other ones. One shut down for technical issues, one shut down for somebody else bought their gas rights up. As far as our metal shop, to date, we have not found any other blacksmith forges or foundries in the world that run on landfill gas. So these are the only ones anywhere. Several people told us initially that they wouldn't be effective that they wouldn't get hot enough. Over the years, we continually figure out improvements that we can make or when things fail. Okay, why did it fail? How can we make that better next time around? And we're down now to a forge design that where it used to take my smiths about an hour for the forge get hot enough to work in it, the other day it got hot enough in 10 minutes. So it's kind of cool to not only have the only forges in the world that run on landfill gas, but some of the best forges anywhere as far as the the smiths been able to do their work. We have had a number of visitors from different counties, different states, and I think we're up to 14 or 15 foreign countries who have sent people here to see what we're doing because I think so many, in so many places, someone's been told "Oh, you have this gas, but you don't have enough to do anything with." And again, it comes back to what they're really saying is "you don't have enough gas for me to make a bunch of money off of it, so I'm not interested." And there's nobody out there to show them, "Okay, you only have, whatever, 20 or 40 or 50 cubic feet of guests a minute?" There's a, there's a wide variety of things that you can still do, you just have to do them on a community level, not on a huge commercial level.
Sarah Barr 17:35
And what would some of those things be that you could have going in a small town like this or even on a college campus?
Timm Muth 18:38
Sure. You could very easily heat buildings. I mean, really anything that you would do normally with natural gas or propane, short of let's say cooking food, you could easily do with landfill gas. So you could heat buildings for sewage treatment plant, you could dry sludge, you could dry fiberglass, or bricks, any other type of industrial process that needs a lot of heat for whether it's for drying or chemical catalyst or something like that. I know that the big BMW plant in South Carolina, their whole painting plant uses heat from a landfill. So especially with the price of propane continuing to climb, things like landfill gas become more and more cost effective. But you have to be close to the landfill really be able to use it. So there there's a lot of limitations there as well. That's why I think the educational aspect of it is so important because there's 100 counties in North Carolina and every one of them has one of these little landfills tucked away somewhere. And I only know like two other ones that are they're doing anything with. So all the rest of them are sitting there leaking, frankly, leaking poisons into our environment, when they could be probably used for something in our community. Even if you're pulling out to heat a community building or heating the garage where all your trash trucks stay or something, you're still saving energy, you know? And you're still preventing that methane from going straight up in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. So again, I think it comes down to educating people as to what could be done with the gas, and finding the right people to have the political will to put it into play.
Sarah Barr 20:09
And we mentioned the last time we talked, we talked a little bit about students from Southwestern Community College, Western Carolina University being involved with the facility here, could you talk a little bit about how those students come to use this facility and how it counts towards their class credit?
Timm Muth 20:24
Sure, sure. Well, we have students on several different levels, right? Some of them come in just as volunteers. Some of them come in and want to be active interns and as part of our intern program, they're basically they're, they're learning a craft here and they're earning hours. Being that we're county funded, we can't really afford to pay any interns, but what we do is we trade them out. So for every two hours they work, they earn one hour of shop time. So once they've developed their skills enough that they can work in the shop, then they've got a bunch of hours banked, so they can come in and do some glass blowing or some metal working or whatever they'd like to do. We have just started with Western Carolina University, students have been able now to take an internship here as a for-credit class. And we've had a couple of them come through and be able to successfully do that. With Southwestern Community College, we use interns from there occasionally, we don't have an agreement in place yet for them to be able to get class credit, but we're certainly working towards that. And then a lot of the teachers in the area that are just aware of what we've got going on here, you know, if they're teaching a segment on microbiology, well, they might come over here and we might spend a couple hours up on the landfill looking at that, intensely. You know, if it's a they're teaching a class, an engineering class, on material science, well, they may come over here and actually do labs in our blacksmithing shop or in the glass shop where they're actually working with those materials rather than just watching a video about it. You know, if you're actually working with steel and changing its hardness and tempering it and annealing it, all these things that change the property of the steel, doing that with your bare hands and heat really helps you to understand what's happening within that steel, rather than just listening to somebody talk about it. So the experiential learning opportunities, I think that the Green Energy Park presents for the schools in the area is a really valuable addition, as well.
Sarah Barr 22:14
And as far as the classes you have here over the summer with Southwestern Community College, was that Southwestern's idea, or your idea, and do those students receive any credit?
Timm Muth 22:27
Right, so those classes with Southwestern Community College are continuing ed classes. So they the students don't get any actual class credit for that. One of the reasons there is for within the school system, to get a class to to go, you have to have a certain number of students because has to make a certain amount of money, right? And our glass shop, we're really limited to having six students in there at a time. That's not a big enough class usually for the school to, financially for the school to want to move forward with that. But my understanding is continuing ed classes, that's it different pot of money, so they're able to offer that a lot, a lot cheaper. Case in point we're getting ready to start a new series of blacksmithing classes. I think it's 24 hours of classes and $70. So it's like $2 and 50 cents an hour or something in instruction. I mean, it's ridiculously cheap. But, you know, that gives regular people a chance to come in here and learn some skills and then, once they have, you know, some basic skills, then they could start coming back in and renting studio time themselves to work on whatever they'd like to.
Sarah Barr 23:31
If you're at a local college or university nearby, you can come here, you can do your work, but it sort of alleviates the burden on the university to actually provide this facility.
Timm Muth 23:39
Exactly, exactly. And really, if they do it that way, it's a boon to me as well because like with these continuing ed classes, Southwestern Community College, they advertise it, they collect the money, they pay the artist, all I have to do is provide a facility and then they cut me a check for rental of the facility. So that's a lot easier because then I don't have to market it and take money and all that these other things as well. So yes, any school could come out here and get involved. Sometimes I have students that'll come out and they have a project idea, you know, they want to work on a digester. I have a young man right now he's looking at the efficiencies of different little wood burning stoves that a backpacker would use. There's all these different designs. To do their testing, they need really dry wood and they need an emissions tester. Well, I have kilns that can really dry their wood and I have an emissions tester. So those are things they didn't have at school. So he can come here, prep his wood, when he goes to do his testing will actually be able to look at the exhaust that's coming off with his different stoves and determine what the efficiency of each one is. So it's kind of cool when they come to us and say, "hey, I've got this great project I was wondering if you could help us out with it out there." And, and generally, you know, we'll do whatever we can to make that happen. Because, again, that's part of our mission.
Sarah Barr 23:47
So Western Carolina University, I understand, had a glassblowing program back in the 70s, but had to discontinue it due to financial reasons. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Timm Muth 25:10
That's right, just in fact, most of the probably two thirds of the glass shops in the country have shut down over the last 20 years or so just because they couldn't afford the energy anymore. I know shops that blow $3,000 a month in propane. So one of our artists, Judy McManus, in fact, she's working over there today. Yeah, she learned to blow glass at Western back in the 70s, then they shut their program down, then I believe she said she didn't get to blow glass again for 28 years. And then she found us here and came back in and redeveloped her skill and now that's her full time gig is blowing glass. That then encourages Western to want to continue to develop their program. I think that eventually they would like to have a glass program again, and just use the Green Energy Park here as an annex to be able to do that. It can really provide some unique opportunities for some of the students that come here and then want to apply themselves.
Sarah Barr 26:01
And so, I guess speaking of cost and speaking of how a lot of universities across the country have had to discontinue glass and metal programs, how does coming to the Green Energy Park sort of alleviate that cost burden?
Timm Muth 26:14
Let's just talk about a glass shop for a moment. Any glass shop their largest operating cost is their fuel. If we were burning propane here instead of landfill gas, we would easily go through 1500 dollars worth of propane a month. I know one studio, and this is a small studio, but he has big equipment, he burns $3,000 worth of propane a month and that's a one person operation. So because the fuel is so high, if you can find a public access glass shop, they're usually charging somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 65 dollars an hour to come in there and use their equipment. Our prices range from $32 an hour to $25 an hour in the glass shop. So, you know, in some cases less than half because I don't have to pay for fuel. In fact, just the opposite. I need to burn this stuff off. So, whereas some shops might be running their furnaces, let's say right at 2000 degrees because it's hot enough to work, but they're saving gas, we'll run hours at 2200 because I need to burn the gas off and if the furnaces are hotter then the artists can make their work quicker. So they're more productive, we're getting rid of this waste gas as it is so everybody can make out there.
Sarah Barr 27:23
And besides alleviating the costs for artists, could renting space in a facility like the Green Energy Park do the same for a university and make it more financially feasible for them to restart a glass or metal program?
Timm Muth 27:35
Sure, well, I mean, if a school wanted to come here and use our facilities and just rent them, well, now they're not paying for upkeep, they're not paying for maintenance, they don't have to worry about capital equipment breaking down or anything, they don't have to pay for fuel. They're just paying one flat fee, and we're taking care of everything else. So I think it makes it a lot easier for them. Plus, there are a lot more restrictions on campus about what you can do and what you can't do. Yeah, we're dealing with fire every day. So that makes a lot of people on a school campus nervous, and understandably so. But with us being in an industrial facility, we're used to dealing with high temperatures, we can do it in a safe manner. If we're having groups come in and we need to demonstrate something, we can rope off in area so nobody gets close enough to get harmed. And everybody that's close, let's say, if we're doing a metal pour, well then everybody that's involved is dressed in leathers and appropriate safety gear and everything like that. So, again, that makes it very easy for Western or Southwestern Community College or another school just to be able to say, "Okay, well, we'd like to do this. Here, you guys take care of all the details and we'll cut you a check at the end of the day for it." If we weren't here, they just wouldn't bother because it'd be too much of a hassle for them or just be too much red tape for them to jump through. So I think, gradually, this gives them a chance to kind of work back into these sort of dying arts. And then hopefully, at some point, there'll be more of a long term agreement on how we can do more classes out here for them.
Sarah Barr 29:01
So if you're a college campus looking to do more with waste materials, specifically using waste as an energy resource, but you don't want to go to the trouble of piping methane from a landfill that might be a long way away, what are some other sources you might want to consider?
Timm Muth 29:16
A college campus in particular is a perfect opportunity for an anaerobic digester. And all that is is a way to do under controlled, mechanical conditions, what's happening in the landfill. You're taking food scraps, or some kind of organic material, you're putting it in big tanks, sealing it up so that no oxygen is getting in there, you're holding it at an ideal pressure and temperature and probably agitating a little bit so to speed up that decomposition process. So you can a lot of these digesters you put in a batch of food, you start it up and within, let's say, 10, 15 days, you're able to open that up and you get basically a big batch of methane out the top and a big batch of half-digested compost out the bottom. For colleges, this is perfect. Because you already have cafeterias and restaurants on campus where you know that there's a lot of food, you know there's a ton of food waste. It would be very simple to direct people, "Okay, hey, if you got food waste, put it in this bucket versus that bucket." And then all of those food scraps could go to a digester to create gas. Most campuses have their own power plants so they're probably, a lot of them heat their buildings with steam. So they're burning like, at Western, they burn natural gas to make steam and push that steam around to heat buildings. Well, they're burning natural gas, they can easily take gas from a landfill or digester and feed right into there, you know, and supply part of that. So I think that the universities are perfect opportunity for that. And in fact, the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, last time I checked, they had I think four digesters going on. One or two for cafeteria scraps, one for cow manure, one for yard trimmings and stuff like that. So, you know, again, it definitely can be done, it just needs the political will to do that.
Sarah Barr 31:05
Why should a college campus think about using methane to power something like a Green Energy Park on campus or even heating buildings? Why should they consider it?
Timm Muth 31:13
Sure. Well, there's there's a range of reasons there. First of all, just from an economic standpoint, even if it's not the cheapest way to make power today, you don't know what propane or natural gas prices are going to be 10 years from now. If you put a digester in, your cost for creating that gas is flat, right? Your equipment's there, your fuel is free, basically. So you know what those costs are going to be. If you're buying propane or natural gas, you're just gonna have to pay whatever the market rises up to. So you got an economic standpoint. A lot of schools these days have sustainability goals trying to reduce their carbon footprint. This is a tremendous way to do it. If you look at how much propane you'd have to burn to heat buildings on a college campus, that's a huge carbon footprint. If you could offset 50% of that gas with gas that you're getting from a digester, that's an enormous savings there. From a point of pride, the younger generation is much more cognizant of the fact that it's important to be careful how we treat our planet. So being able to say, "hey, we've got these digesters on site, and we're really proactive about trying to reduce our individual impacts on the planet," you know, kind of gives them a bit of bragging rights there as well.
Sarah Barr 32:22
Also, I think this would be a great opportunity to rope in interns. I mean, you could have interns from environmental science, from marketing, engineering. So it really is a cross-disciplinary project.
Timm Muth 32:34
It really is. And you're absolutely right, because you have to have social media people and you have to have marketing people in a place like this. You have to have people in that like to deal with the public, you know, we have a huge Youth Arts Festival in September. We'll have 1000 or 1200 kids out here. Well, that takes a lot of volunteers. Well, you need somebody that likes to be a volunteer coordinator to deal with that. You know, everything from I need people to come in and learn how to fire up equipment to I need people who are willing to go downtown and give out brochures on our facility, you know? So there's a lot of different disciplines that can get involved in a facility like this.
Sarah Barr 33:11
So given all the benefits we've been talking about, you know, benefits in terms of the environment, the community, financial benefits, why is the Green Energy Park sort of still the only one of its kind?
Timm Muth 33:22
There's a couple of things there. It's hard for a place like this since it's not a huge money-making venture, it's hard for a county or a university to want to put a bunch of money into it if they don't quite understand the benefits that they're getting back. So it really needs to be very clearly thought out ahead of time. And I think if universities were able to look at a facility like this clearly and attach some dollar figures to the educational benefits that their students are receiving, I don't have the ability to do that, but certainly someone does, I think that they would see that this is a good investment for funds in terms of education because experiential learning, you know, hands on learning is so much more valuable than watching a video or listening to somebody talk about it. Half the time they haven't even done it themselves, they're just talking about it, you know? So, for a school, I think a big part of it is really getting a lot of heads together first, so that you have a good understanding of all the different areas that could touch on and then getting buy in from all those different departments that yes, we will participate. Yes, I want to give you marketing kids for this, or yes, I want to give you construction management students to help build the place or whatever. Again, you just got to have some some vision out there for it. But I do think, especially for a lot of schools these days, they tend to cut back on their arts because they don't see it as they don't get as many students in, the students don't have as many career opportunities when they get out. So that reduces the number of students. Case in point from Western, the majority of their art students who graduate never get to go on and do their art for a living. That's crazy to me, you know? If I had sent my child to school for four years and incurred a huge debt for them to get a degree in ceramics just to find out "Oh, okay, well now you can't do ceramics as a living because you can't afford the fuel, you don't have a place to work, you don't have any equipment or anything like that." Well, that's a huge waste of time and money and talent, because these people spent four years developing that talent. If instead, you know, if the school could say, "Okay, well we'll build a facility like this, so that when students graduate, we'll have some cheap studio spaces that they can rent for the first, whatever, three years, five years or something like that, rather than them trying to figure out well, how do I go out and rent a storefront somewhere, you know, for 1500 dollars a month? How do I get this equipment?" If you have a facility like this, they don't have to have their own equipment, they don't have to have their own glass shop, they can just come in, spend their time here and make their work, and then leave. Worry about, you know, the expenses and the maintenance, fall back on whoever operates the place. So I think, yeah, I think for schools, they, they would just really need to be look at the big picture and see all the different areas that a facility like this could bring to bear.
Sarah Barr 36:07
So what have been some of the challenges you've faced over the lifetime of this project, and what is still challenging for you?
Timm Muth 36:16
It's a challenge doing this under the auspices of a county government because counties generally don't have an art department. Generally they don't have an energy department either. So right there, we're kind of an odd duck, right? You also have very frequent turnover of county leadership, that's just going to happen always. And you get people in who don't think that art is valuable. So, if you get in somebody like that you have four years to educate them and win you over their to your side, well, then they might get voted out and then you got to start this process all over. And, oftentimes, you have leaders who, like I said, they don't see the value in art and artists usually aren't the ones who are going to go to county meetings and stand up and raise a fuss and say "we want more art in our town" you know? You know, so part of it is the demand of the community too. When you're in these small counties like this, they are tending to focus on, well, what do people want this year? It's hard for them to look out and say, "well, what will be best for our county for the next 10 years? How do we put this into play?" And I think that universities tend to have a longer viewpoint, you know? You don't usually have Chancellors changing every two years. Or if you do there's a problem, you know. They are tending to look further out. And they're looking at, okay, well, what will help us bring more students in? Well, if you have a unique energy art facility at your campus, that's probably going to attract students. I know for a fact we've had students who have come to Western specifically because they want to come over here and work with us. In fact, a girl that helped us put this whole glass shop together, we didn't have a glass shop, and she came to Western for the graduate school because she wanted to help us build this thing.
Sarah Barr 37:51
And I guess, alternatively, what do you find most rewarding about this job? What is the best part of this job for you?
Timm Muth 37:58
To me, the most valuable thing that I get back is when some little kid comes up to me and says, "thank you, Mr. Timm, this was so much fun." Or a teacher comes up and says, "this is the best field trip we ever had for our kids." Or I often have moms come up and say, "when's your art festival? My kid has asked me about it since the spring, would you tell me when you've got it scheduled?" I know moms that say that, our festival is always in September, they come in they say "we put your festival on our on our calendar in November. That's how far ahead my kids are looking forward to coming out here." And, you know, this is a very economically depressed area. This is a poor area. You know, this really is Appalachia. Even though we have a university and you have modern things like that, it's still a very poor area. And people don't have a lot of money to do a lot of things. And I always remember when I first came to town, going to the street festival down there, and it's on the side, but go into the street festival in Sylva and having to tell my son, "no, don't touch that. No, I can't afford that. No, you can't do this. No, I don't have the money for that. No, no, no." And I just thought, you know, this is depressing for me and I do okay, economically wise. For the people who do worse, this would be awful. They wouldn't even come to a festival like this because you spend all your time telling your kid all the things they can't do, right? Instead, when we have our festival, everything is free. Everything the kids want to do is free. Nobody charges anything for anything, right? I always remember I had a mom come up to me one time, she had four little ones. And they're covered with paint and chalk and soap suds and everything else. And she said, "I just want to tell you, we've been here for five hours, I've spent $10 on a brace of hot dogs for these four and that's it." She's like, "they've done everything here. She's like, "you realize there's no place I can take four kids for $10. I can't even get a round of hamburgers for $10." She's like, "and they've learned so much and they've had so much fun and everything." So when I hear things like that, it makes me know that we're on the right track. You know, I had a little old lady one time she came in, she took a Christmas ornament class, she made this ornament. And, you know, she was like ready to retire. So I knew she probably wasn't going to become a professional glass artist or anything. But I bumped into her one day and she told me how she hangs that Christmas ornament right by her front door and a window so that everybody that comes to visit her has to see that ornament and then when they walk in, they always tell her about oh how beautiful that is. Where'd you get it? Then she gets tell this whole story about how all her life she'd been fascinated with glass blowing, but it wasn't until here she's 65 she actually got to make something, you know. So she gets to relive that whole experience again, and how many times Miss Glenda goes through that, I don't know. But that's, that's a quality of life issue right there.
Sarah Barr 40:41
So what would be some of your recommendations for starting a facility like this just even starting to look into methane as a fuel source? Where should people look to for resources.
Timm Muth 40:50
So if you're looking at landfills, I always recommend people go the EPA has a program called LMOP, which stands for Landfill Methane Outreach Program. So if you go to EPA backslash LMOP dot gov, you'll get their site and it's got details on everything you could ever want to know about landfill gas. They have information on every single landfill in the country, if it's being developed, how much gas it has, what kind of trash is in there, I mean, just all these details. If a campus is looking more towards anaerobic digestion, then my first suggestion is, if you're on a university, call University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Find the right person there that works with their digesters and find out how they get that in play, you know. You don't need to recreate the wheel, look at what they did. It may even have reports, or economic studies, or valuations that you may be able to use yourself in putting together your own argument. For people who are interested in having something like this in their community, I have a lot of people who will show up and say, "we have this landfill in our town and all they do is flare the gas off." That's not going to be an easy task, an easy journey, because when you go and you ask people about it, the first thing they're going to say is, "well, there's not enough gas for us do anything." And then they're going to go on about how much money it would cost to do something. But if you're just tenacious about it and you just keep asking the questions, "why are we wasting this energy? Why are you sending this trash out of town when we could be turning this into energy? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?" Politicians want to look good, they want everybody think that they're great, right? So you have to find a way for that project to make them look good, you know? If they're, if they come out as they're the architects of that project, that's fine. Let them have the credit for it as long as they support it and they provide the funding or whatever is needed to make that project happen. So you know, if you want a project like this in your facility, you're going to have to fight for it. But there are 1000 good reasons to do a project like this. And very few reasons not to, other than people just don't know enough about it. So it's strange. So it's a little scary.
Sarah Barr 42:56
In closing, is there anything else that you think is really important about this project that you'd like listeners to know?
Timm Muth 43:03
Yes. I always like to tell people, don't let someone else tell you what is possible. If we had listened to people who told us what wasn't possible, this place would never exist. Several people told me wouldn't work, wouldn't get hot enough, county wouldn't support it, whatever. All kinds of roadblocks. I believed that place would work. I believed that the equipment would get hot enough. I believed that we could get enough people from the community and students and volunteers to make it happen. So you know, there's a lot of folks out there that will, they can't look outside their own box and they don't want anybody else to step outside that box either. But again, the problems that our world has, if we could solve them the way we've been doing things, they'd have already been solved, right? So obviously, these problems require a new approach. So that's what we're trying to do here is just prove that there's other ways of doing things. But you have to sometimes you just gotta follow your, your own, your own internal compass, you know? This isn't the easiest way to do things. But for me, personally, this was the moral way to do things. I could feel good about the work that we're doing here. And I think that's the biggest key that I like to share with people is just don't let somebody else tell you, this line of work isn't suitable for you, or this project won't work, or this invention won't work, because they don't know. They haven't tried it themselves. They're just they're making some negative guess, just like you're making some positive guess. So why allow them to control your destiny, you know? That's in your hands. And I would say, you know, from starting off to where people told us it wouldn't work and our equipment was marginal, to now our equipment works so well that I have other blacksmiths and other glass blowers come from other studios to come here to use our equipment because our equipment works better and it runs hotter. And and that's just because we had people here that believed in what we were doing and weren't willing to quit the first time it didn't work, or the first time somebody else stopped up and says, "well, I don't believe you or I'm not going to support you, right? Or even I'm going to try and stop you." Because we've had people actively try to shut us down. Just we believe in what we're doing so we just keep moving forward with it.
Sarah Barr 45:13
All right, well, Timm, it was a pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you for teaching us all about the Green Energy Park.
Timm Muth 45:19
Well, it was, it was my pleasure. Anytime. And anyone wants some more information on what we're doing here, or would like some advice from me personally, are very welcome to contact me. I'm happy to share any information that we have.
Sarah Barr 45:31
Perfect. Thank you so much.
Timm Muth 45:32
Sarah Barr 45:35
That's it for this episode. I did want to give a big shout out to my mom for connecting me with the Green Energy Park, to Timm for his enthusiasm and dedication throughout this project and to Dave who supported me through the editing process and gave me the opportunity to spread the word about the Green Energy Park. We recently added a new transcript feature to our website, and we're working to add this to all of our previous episodes. If you'd like to follow the show on social media, we are on Twitter @energypodcast, and also now on LinkedIn. Just search for Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast. You can also visit our website at campusenergypodcast.com. If you'd like to support the show, please consider leaving a rating or a review on iTunes or sending a link to a friend. As always, thanks for listening.